2007: Michael Yonkers - Grimwood
“Welcome to the everchanging landscape of early 21st century musical excavation,” began Karl Ikola’s liner notes to Michael Yonkers Band’s Microminiature Love. The album cemented the relationship between Sub Pop and psychedelic archivists DeStijl, demonstrating the former’s strength in finding and reissuing little-known gems from the psychedelic explosion. DeStijl’s Clint Simonson searches cut-out bins and Goodwills around the country for private presses, regional eccentricities and ignored basement experimenters. Often times, he finds, and conversely exposes, inventive psychedelic albums, undermining the exorbitant collector prices.
With Yonkers’ first effort, Simonson unveiled a hidden classic suppressed by major label follies and Yonkers’ subsequent music industry-spawned disillusionment. The Yonkers Band was like a coat of black paint over paisley rhythms with raw pre-punk psych-blues. By any means, the album would have never climbed American charts in the ‘60s but Yonkers believed in progression and fell for Sire’s promises. The label rejected the masters to Microminiature Love and Yonkers became another major label casualty. Instead of retreating or killing his producer a la Charles Manson, he grew a beard over his John Lennon mug, locked himself in the studio and produced a dark, dreary folk album with mystical overtones. Under the influence of Leonard Cohen, Yonkers lowered his voice, stripped down his sound and constructed Grimwood, a very personal album.
Yonkers risks coming off like a prima-donna as he bears his fears to the listener but his earnestness and stern delivery ensures the message’s integrity reaches the listener uncompromised. His masterful basement production sense assures each word’s perfect instrumental accentuation. He either fingerpicks or strums with due respect to the lyrics, adding echoing flute, droning synth and creeping harmonica to further the dark psych feel. “Lonely Fog” lists off complaints like “I will never shine again/’til I feel the daytime sky” with a chorus of “I am lonely, fog/Very lonely.” Yonkers processes his vocals to sound like a transmission from a lonely pirate radio operator and inserts a buzzing electric sound, further blackening his sparse instrumentation. His homemade guitar effect boxes, such as the wah-wah on the “Tripping through the Rose Garden,” lend his electric guitar an otherworldly voice. Though darkness engulfs the album, it contains a few bright points. Yonkers shares a joke with studio musicians “The Day is Through” and the chuckling begins the dark tale. On “And Give It to You,” he relays what actions he would take for his lover.
“And Give It To You” also reveals Yonkers weakness, as he tosses off the occasional dud of a couplet. The corniness of the tune’s basis lends itself to parody but Yonkers only fans the flames with lines like “I’d ask my guardian angel/If it would be okay/To rent a room in heaven/If only for the day.” However, a loose barroom chorus of “And give it to you” saves the song from mediocrity. On “The Day is Through,” Yonkers rattles off a few weak couplets like “I will stay here for the hour/I will pick the only flower” but most of the time poetry is crisp and concise. Even when presenting weak couplets like “There is an answer/It lies in the dance,” Yonkers’ conviction allows the listener to oversee his lyrical shortcomings much of the time.
Michael Yonkers still creates chunks of primal psychedelica and his vast back catalog still warrants reissuing. He proved ahead of his time, as both reissued albums sold poorly upon initial release. An artist with no outlet, Yonkers is pictured throwing copies of Grimwood in the air on the back of Microminature Love feasibly out of frustration with its sales. With the reissue of Grimwood, Yonkers may just find the audience he panned for almost 40 years ago.
1995: Archers of Loaf - Vee Vee
Has everyone had personal soundtracks for their life and times? Was there, for instance, a record that tracked through your mind the first time you’d been dumped (Disentegration), resolved to hunt down her new boyfriend (The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste) and confront him looking like a mutant reincarnation of Ponyboy (Legacy of Brutality)? Did songs accompany your thoughts when you were cut from the basketball team (“Out of Step”)? For you parents, what did you hum to your new-born child (“To Here Knows When”)? Does Thanksgiving evoke Arlo Guthrie for any other Americans out there?
In 1995, if you were between the ages of 18 and 28, Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee may have worked its way into your cognitive rotation in the same manner. The band's sound, tighter than Pavement's and more angular than Superchunk's, was ideal for building anthems on loyalty and subversion. In “Harnessed in Slums,” Eric Bachman barks, “Snuff the leader with the leader with the bad-assed plan/ Take what you want from the palm of his hand,” and it’s hard not to conjure that stout manager at BurgerFreak who fired you for stealing french fries. And that’s not to trivialize the record’s impact. Instead, it may be lauded for its ability to remove intellectualization from concepts like revolution and leave us with the sentiments of daily human reality.
The music of Vee Vee, jittery yet powerful, shoves any message that manages to surface over the edge. The musical devices employed range from choruses accompanied by sweeping and insistent power chords to the Archers’ signature eighth-note guitar duels. Like their fellow Tar heel colleagues Superchunk, Archers of Loaf have a heritage that resides somewhere between hardcore and pop. Songs like “Harnessed in Slums,” “The Worst Has Yet to Come,” and “Nostalgia” possess hardcore’s sheer energetic roots while sprinkling in enough melody to make it accessible to a range of audiences. Other songs -- “Nevermind the Enemy,” “Greatest of All Time,” “Underdogs of Nipomo,” “Fabricoh” -- tip the balance in slight favor of pop with glorious results. Other tunes, like “Step Into the Light” and “Underachievers March and Fight Song,” don’t commit themselves enough either way and therefore falter. These moments, however, are far between enough that they don’t detract from the record’s overall stoicism.
All of this brings me to the most magical day of my life: I’d been short-changed at a pizzeria (“Nevermind the Enemy”), but I was hesitant to contest it because I didn’t want to deter the girl seated two tables over, who, amid my friends, my cherry coke, and my greased-out napkins, had been staring at me (“Step Into the Light”). I summoned my swagger and walked to her, when the cashier called to me, “Count your change, pretty-boy?” I swiveled to him. He had paws for arms, a neck as thick as my torso, and the ink was barely dry on his prison release (“Underdogs of Nipomo”). To retaliate, I couldn’t muster anything intelligent or even absurd to say to expose his empty bravado (“Let the Loser Melt”). I looked back to the table where my friends sat, to find that they’d vanished from the establishment, in search of safer company (“Floating Friends”). The girl, with eyes like Siouxsie Sioux and a pout like the Little Mermaid, could have been inside my soul, testing my courage at this pivotal moment (“Death in the Park”). But there was nothing I could do or say to retain my dignity or my 43 cents. I turned away from the cashier’s smirk and the girl was gone.
This was life for a sensitive, skinny boy, living in an industrial plot of anywhere (“Harnessed in Slums”). I’d had the misfortune of leaving the pizzeria just as first shift ended at the steel plant, “Edith,” “Cassandra,” “Meredith Lovefingers,” “cherry-boy,” they’d yell to me from the entrance gate (“The Worst Has Yet to Come”). Life was a silent tremor of what it used to be, when I’d ride my bike everywhere and boys and girls had interchangeable paths to innocent happiness (“Nostalgia”). It would be simple to slip into worthlessness with this life. I had to get out (“Underachievers March and Fight Song”). There was no other way, I’d die a victim of my surroundings if I didn’t. That’s when I heard the motorcycle race up behind me. I turned. It wasn’t a mugger or a taunter or a beggar. The rider lifted her helmet and shook her matted locks of black hair. It was the girl from the pizzeria. “You comin’ to New York with me?” she asked. (“Greatest of All Time”).
2007: Disciple - Come & See Us As We Are!
Back during the acid wave and its musical fallout, it was practically a rite of passage for college kids to put a band together, practice for a few years, release an album of mildly familiar songs after graduation, and basically fade into normalcy. Though this New York quintet maintained a much more active touring schedule than the typical Mom’s-car-driving garage band of the day, their 1970 debut reeks of this well-established phenomenon. The powerful voice of lead singer Sandy Crespo is the one thing that sets their sound apart from the average TV show score of the day (which was a hell of a lot funkier than today’s Payola OC shit, so that’s not really a diss). Whatever chemistry they had developed into some decent ideas, as heavily influenced as they may have been.
The opening title track draws easy comparisons to the motif of Nirvana’s 1968 opus All Of Us, and basically acts as the album’s theme, while its follow-up, “Come Along,” evokes a more clearheaded, laid-back Jefferson Airplane. The rolling bassline and structure from album highlight “Better Than You (Mental Song)” comes across like Love with Big Brother & The Holding Company-style psych-pop changes. And you’ve gotta hand it to their cover of Fontella Bass’ immortal “Rescue Me,” which does everything a good cross-genre homage should, giving the source material a new context without forsaking the spirit of the original. Though it ain’t exactly Cream, Disciple’s lone contribution to the West Coast psychedelic canon is a fairly well-executed exposition of all the many blessings they had going for them, but I think some of their grounding ideas were lost behind inadequate recording and production. One can only imagine how vivid, dynamic, and surreal this album could have been with someone like George Martin or Paul Rothchild piecing their sound together. As is, Come & See Us As We Are exists as a footnote of interest on the continually expanding musical timeline.
1982: Laurie Anderson - Big Science
From perhaps 1977-1984, music had a preoccupation with the progress of society and technology and George Orwell was to blame. 1984 created an unconscious cultural deadline for the self-examination of Western society. Rock music sang about the spawning of mega-governments, punks assaulted fascism, pop stars noted a scaled cooling of compassion, jazz captured the spirit of robots. Suddenly, the word “modern” became an esteemed concept. It instructed us to accept the reality of imminent nuclear war, to be gaudy, to indulge, to ditch your 8-track player and buy a Betamax, to compete for every decibel of laughter, scrap of land, and shade of color.
On Big Science instead of fostering these notions, Laurie Anderson observes them. Culled from fragments of her performance art opus, United States, Live, the songs from Big Science are compassionate and alarming. They describe the death musings of a commercial airline pilot over an intercom (“From the Sky”), the hubris of urban expansion (“Big Science”), the ignorance of the free-born (“Born, Never Asked”). The minimal music is loyal to her themes, melding organic brass and woodwinds with electronic beats, vibes, and melodic interludes. Most of the songs find Anderson, speaking over the music with her compelling pace and diction. “Cause I can see the future and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here,” she utters in the simple, Cartesian, “Let X=X.” In this essence lies the source of Big Science’s magnificence. Here silence is used as artfully as words. There are empty slabs of pause, appealing to mechanistic processing and as well as warm-hearted salutations. The renowned “Oh Superman”, the album’s centerpiece, is complete immersion in this notion. Anderson reads her apocalyptic verse while a robot voice echoes. This interplay is chilling: like a mental duel between compassion and complete detachment. The “song” finds Anderson talking on the phone to what seems at first to be her mother then she gives pause, “OK who is this really?” And the haunting reply comes, slow over a subtle, sweet keyboard dirge, “I am the hand, the hand that takes.”
The world Anderson describes, however, is far from minimal or bleak, for she also gives us texture. “Example #22” erupts with rhythm and jovial horns. German samples abound with Anderson bleating,“Honey you’re my one and only, So pay me what you owe me.” A bass and kick drum join the fray and suddenly the modern world is dancing. “It Tanga” jests at the connection gaps between men and women, women speaking open-ended and men repeating ageless Dylan, “Isn’t it just like a woman.” And that’s how the sparse chaos that’s presented by Big Science ends. You’ve been lured into a dream without realizing. Anderson has assaulted you with enough thought and silence and sound that you return society more enlightened but less certain of anything than when you left.
As “O Superman” climaxes, Anderson reaches a resolution to this societal fray and I can’t help but think that Orwell would approve. It unfolds gradually in the telling, “Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom” It’s a poignant conclusion for certain, but when living in a world of compromise and miscommunication, it may be the best of all things.
1982: Pauline Oliveros - The Wanderer / Accordion and Voice
“Sustain a tone or sound until any desire to change it disappears. When there is no longer any desire to change the tone or sound, then change it.” - from the score for “Horse Sings From Cloud”
Pauline Oliveros has been a figure of the classical and electronic avant-garde for decades. She champions "[deep listening->http://www.deeplistening.org/site]." Her careers as writer, composer and performer have been dedicated to the exploration of music as a psychosomatic means of expanding consciousness. She has embodied that belief through contributions to numerous experimental groups and universities dating back to the San Francisco Tape Center in the ‘60s (where she played in the premiere of Terry Riley’s In C for Instruments. Important has paid her a welcome tribute by reissuing two discs of her accordion-based material dating from the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Despite the liberal, un-ironic use of accordion by bands from The Arcade Fire to The Twilight Sad, in my mind the instrument still had the character of a dowdy polka prop before I heard these records. No more. Oliveros reveals the instrument’s capacity for scale and dignity in this handful of expansive original compositions, which range from the staunchly minimalist “Rattlesnake Mountain” to the modernist romp of “The Wanderer: Part II”.
Her music is a fine example of eschewing artifice as a means of arriving at richer art: the persistent, undulating mass of sound that she elicits from her accordion brings to mind the image of a raw sine wave – the simplest visual avatar of sound. But careful attention to the throbbing permutations of this mass reveals a robust, versatile, and shifting music that is at once inscrutable and engrossing. She capitalizes on ambient music’s binary ability: it can serve as a sort of matte aural wallpaper or an unadorned gateway to new ways of imagining. According to Oliveros’ commentary in the liner notes, “Horse Sings From Cloud” is intended to function as a meditative agent wherein the respirations of player and instrument respond to and align with each other. From someone else, this could seem like so much neo-Buddhist posturing, but the quality of Oliveros’ work and the intensity of her engagement with these ideas preclude such facile suspicions. It’s rare to find such an enriching fusion of concept, sound, and politics in the same musical moment. Don’t miss it.
1970: Rita Lee - Build Up
It wasn’t easy for the sunlit fuzz-funk music of Tropicalismo to make it all the way to 1970. The late ‘60s sent the movement’s major players through everything from musical game show appearances to military dictatorship-imposed imprisonment and exile (key players like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, for example), all with minimal public support. When the ‘70s finally hit, rock was still finding its footing, even though it was becoming more generally accepted by Brazil as a whole. While this summary skips over volumes of details, it gives an idea of where the country was positioned musically in 1970: finally ready to accept rock with moderately open arms and prove to the rest of the world that they could rock with the best of them.
Rita Lee, of course, already had. She’d bested most of her Anglo counterparts on two late-‘60s albums with Os Mutantes, lacing her bandmates’ heavy sub-equatorial psych with the perfect compliment of larking alto, as well as a dark opus, A Divina Comedia, with the group that same year. Having already proved herself in that arena (she’s now known as “The Grandmother of Rock” in her native Brazil) was perhaps the reason Lee decided to try something different on Build Up.
Though fellow Mutants Arnoldo Baptista and Sergio Dias both contribute to the album, those looking to hear Lee’s voice in the midst of their drug-induced guitar fuzz-outs have come to the wrong place. The first notes of this record come in the form of string arrangements on opener “Sucesso, Aqui Vou Eu,” which, at first glance, more closely resembles a Petula Clark Broadway number than anything in the Tropicalia canon. Hearing it for the first time, it’s hard to believe you’re listening to the same woman who sang vocals on a song which translates to “Hail, Lucifer” that same year -- and even harder to believe that you’re actually kind of digging it. It may be ‘40s nightclub at a glance, but Lee was never one to walk someone else’s trail, especially at this point in her career. A closer listen reveals stylistic sparks taken from all corners of the globe and plenty of twists lying just below the surface. This song foreshadows stylistically what’s to come on many tracks throughout the rest of the album. Most aren’t really the psych-rock jams Lee was doing concurrently with Os Mutantes, but rather conventional numbers taken and tweaked in ways as to make them totally unique.
From there, Lee dives into “Calma,” shifting the mood from ocean breeze to high-speed chase at will, again keeping it all in a jazz-lounge framework. Side one continues turning the string and horn vibe on its head, while side two contains most of the ‘rockers.’ Given the context, the ‘conventional’ tracks actually end up being the least straightforward on the album. Many notable rock figures have gone the way of ‘conventional’ music in efforts to prove that they’re capable of more than one style, but this album is one of the best examples of being able to do that without sacrificing what made the earlier music notable to begin with. All the intriguing aspects of Lee’s music are present here, just in different forms. Lee continues to keep it interesting on side two with “Hulla-Hulla,” which is Hawaiian from the name down. Yes, Hawaiian. Call it cheesy, but it holds up to the rest of the album instrumentally with its strong humming-it-for-days-after-you-hear-it factor. Beatles cover, “And I Love Him,” gives Lee an excuse to channel her inner Janis, something she’s been known to do on Mutantes tracks (see: “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona”). It’s tolerable, but given that Lee has always been the better of the two both vocally and stylistically, it’s regrettable to see her feeling the need to go the drunken-blues route. Cloak-and-dagger number “Prisioneira Do Amor” leads into the album’s closer, a straight-ahead rock number chock full of electric guitar, walking bass, and wah pedal.
The album is full of great rhythms and instrumental work, but when a vocalist from a previous musical outfit does a solo album, the vocal quality is sure to be dissected. Under any microscope, Lee’s voice holds up to the challenge. If the album does have a few flaws, vocals aren’t one of them. Her voice keeps even the less interesting tracks afloat, gliding through all the right notes while always managing to stay somewhere between a moan and a whisper. It’s sexy, it’s ear-candy, it’s Rita Lee in her prime.
It will be difficult for most of us who first learned about Brazillian music through Os Mutantes to resist comparing the two incarnations of her music instead of just listening to it. Indeed, it may come as a disappointment to many fans that Lee appears to have traded whatever hallucinogens she was taking with Os Mutantes for a pleasant glass of wine this time around. But this shouldn’t be cause for dismay -- these are two separate sounds entirely. It wasn’t a Mutantes album for a reason, after all. Build Up was never trying to send us to another universe, only to make us enjoy this one a little bit more.