2006: Mise en Abyme - Do You Hear The Hum
Depending on who’s using the phrase, “experimental music” can mean just about anything. Critics describe many well-received albums -- Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms -- as being “experimental” in some form or another. But just as frequently, the adjective bears a negative connotation – it can be used to describe incoherent noise music or even your friend’s embarrassingly self-conscious garage band stylings. But the term shouldn’t be an all-inconclusive musical canopy. To be successful, experimental music, like any type of art, must be internally coherent. Even John Cage abided by his own set of rules.
Enter Mise en Abyme’s Do You Hear The Hum. The Portland, OR-based band's third album is neither as good as the best experimental music nor as bad as the worst. Glimmering with potential, but often eclectic to a fault, Hum frustrates as much as it satisfies. Translated from French, the band’s name refers to the artistic effect of reproducing an image infinitely – as when placing something between two facing mirrors. Their murky, distorted dissonance certainly strives for the Nietzschean abyss of aesthetic conception that only great art can reach, but for the most part Hum stays firmly in the finite here and now.
The album’s high points come when Mise en Abyme keep their egos in check. Opening track “Omphalos” is an infectious, nearly wordless techno exercise that uses a heavy, discordant bassline to compel foot tapping, similar to the best German techno-pop. Glass-shattering guitar riffs, hip-hop inspired scratches, and looped clips generate a memorable rhythmic density, but the song doesn’t try to be anything more than a catchy, if slightly weird, blurb of electronica. At this, it succeeds brilliantly.
On “Tourist,” the band again uses a mangled bassline melody as the foundation for a captivating resonance. Eschewing vocals, Mise en Abyme realize a level of enigmatic complexity akin to Portishead; however, like “Omphalos,” "Tourist" is an experiment only in a specific genre. A dark anthem for those who prefer shadowy alleys to brightly lit streets, it’s also a song that you need to close your eyes to listen to, one that demands your full attention. Guitar dalliances float above drums and spooky minor notes. It’s music as haunting and suggestive as a nightmare.
If only Mise en Abyme showed restraint throughout the whole album. What the band needs is what Danish film director Lars Von Trier provided fellow director Jorgan Leith in the movie The Five Obstructions: namely, well, obstructions. Great art, whatever the medium, requires restrictions. Too often, Mise en Abyme forgo the internal coherency of “Omphalos” and “Tourist” for haphazard cross-genre mash-ups. In these instances, the band mistakes novelty for artistry. Experimentalism doesn’t give musicians license to be sloppy.
“Wool Gathering” exemplifies this. The song begins as a soft, reflective ballad and then devolves into clanging, techno disharmony. In “Hypnagogue,” a forgettable pop-techno soundtrack plays beneath half-spoken, half-sung vocals that sound like a bad Nick Cave impersonation. The band throws in a horde of random, unidentifiable sounds, but this paltry attempt at abstraction only makes the song’s failings more obvious. The song's lyrics are the self-aware, faux-symbolist poetry of a college freshman; disconnected phrases such as “collapsing with the weight of language” and “towering roosters swallow houses” are less profound than distractingly indulgent. Mise en Abyme are better when they let their music do the talking.
“Extruder,” the second-to-last track, reveals another problem with Hum: the sheer annoyance factor. Again, the lyrics are little more than a list of images (“he pulls down on your leather umbrella”), and while this work's on some albums, such as Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, in Hum's case it just grates Coupled with the song’s distorted, metallic beat, listening to "Extruder" is like flying in coach with a screaming baby next to you.
Mise en Abyme clearly have talent, but they are too often arty for their own good. Because of this, Do You Hear the Hum mingles in mediocrity when it could have resided in the sublime. There are few songs that jump out at you, but they only solidify the album as a moody, messy blob, offset by scattered highlights. The songs don’t flow organically because Mise en Abyme try to create abstract music for every musical taste. Instead of doing one genre well, they do many genres tolerably, but the whole point of experimental music is that it will only appeal to a small section of listeners. Abstract music can’t be a populist art. As a result, Hum is an experiment with a failed hypothesis. Mise en Abyme need to decide who they want to be and who they want their audience to be before they will ever become more than fledgling potential.
1989: Gorilla Biscuits - Start Today
I spent years treating my NY/NJ straight-edge hardcore roots like a zit that lingered in the middle of my nose, even as I desperately tried to leave my teens behind. From 1988 to around 1993, it wasn't just the music I listened to -- it was my life. Then I got to college and learned a couple of contextual details about the music I loved. Straight-edge hardcore was, in the grand scheme of things, over and done with when Minor Threat broke up in 1985, and the New York scene I'd come up in was generally viewed as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys with an overabundance of tough-guy posing and a shortfall in musical inventiveness. As I became steeped in earlier, more groundbreaking generations of punk rock, as well as more mind-broadening genres such as funk, reggae, and jazz, I found myself starting to sell off, hide, or try to explain away my Agnostic Front, Sick of It All, and Youth of Today records.
What a pretentious douche-clown I was. I should have stood proudly by my wild-eyed, youthful passion for hardcore, and am belatedly doing so now. Sure, the scene eventually became extremely narrow-minded and formulaic. But in its heyday, New York hardcore was every bit as vital and combustive as any other punk era. Its songs may have been a bit too preachy and specific to the time to warrant inclusion on, say, a Rhino punk box, but to the kids who heard it at the time, the music had a life-changing impact.
No single hardcore band of the late-’80s captured our imagination and spirit as profoundly as Gorilla Biscuits. Their sole album Start Today hit me and my friends with such a wallop that we listened to nothing else for six months after its release -- except maybe albums we'd heard might sound like it. From the opening trumpet line, heralding the impending guitar blast of “New Direction,” to the gloriously melodic choruses, to the title track's harmonica solo -- Hardcore Harmonica Solo!!! -- Start Today sounded like nothing we'd ever heard before.
Perhaps the album's most distinguishing feature was its overwhelming positivity, which was evident throughout, despite the tense, rapidly shouted verses and crunchy, muscular-but-never-harsh guitars. While the vocals alternated between rhythmic barking and sing-songy refrains, singer Anthony “Civ” Civocelli never sounded scoldingly angry (as Ian MacKaye certainly did in Minor Threat), overly preachy (like Ray Cappo in Youth of Today), or violent-natured (as Raybeez of Warzone occasionally came off). Even as a teen, I found it ironic that our parents had strong reservations about us listening to such aggressive-sounding music when, in fact, its lyrical content was so clearly constructive, especially when compared to vapid pop hits of the era like -- what was big in ’89? Milli Vanilli? The Escape Club? Roxette?
The songs covered a wide range of topics, all relating to self-improvement through very specific means: not being channel-surfing couch potatoes, shunning racists, showing gratitude and appreciation to our friends, expressing ourselves in ways that avoid insulting others ("I can't believe the things we say/ A cutting word can ruin days!”), reserving judgment until we hear all sides to a story, and going veggie out of affection for our pets (“My true compassion is for all living things/ And not just the ones that are cute!”). Sure, you can say these sound like sentiments from “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” but to a group of teenagers surrounded by a pop culture intent on selling us one thing or another, it meant a lot to hear songs that seemed sincerely intended to help us understand the world we lived in and navigate it in ways we could be proud of.
My friends and I were lucky enough to catch Gorilla Biscuits in 1990, and it was a day I'll never forget. They played just about every song in their arsenal, and it was one of the most fun shows I've ever seen. They had a new song, “Distance,” an impressive pop-leaning tune that explored some interesting lyrical terrain, but was unfortunately never recorded. The demo versions circulating the internet these days remain our only taste of the fruitful direction the band might have gone if they'd held it together a little longer. They started to crumble in 1990 when songwriter/guitarist Walter Schreifels formed Quicksand, a side project that soon became a full-time gig and scored a few minor alternative-rock-era hits. The rest of the band reformed in the mid-’90s under the moniker Civ, which also had a couple of chart hits (one of which was in a Nissan ad), but it just wasn't the same.
As it stands, along with an ’87 demo 7-inch and an early EP, Start Today is the official document of the era-defining inspiration that was Gorilla Biscuits. It's only 20 minutes long, but it stands the test of time, and I'm no longer ashamed to admit it.
2008: The Lines - Memory Span
There were no slow news days for the music media in the 1970s. The stories seemed to write themselves: overdoses, self-imposed exiles, curses of popular culture on prime-time television, scenes conceived from nothing. And those stories said nothing of the music itself, which was being torn to shreds and rewritten on every dirty street corner from Berlin to Los Angeles. That in mind, when listening to the gruff -- though well-executed -- guitar pop of The Lines (not to be confused with the more recent Wolverhampton band of the same name), it’s no wonder the band flew under the radar. Lacking the rhythmic urge of The Jam, the three-chord absurdity of The Kinks, the lyrical quips of Buzzcocks, and any sort of punk ferocity, The Lines were so obscured from radio success that any semblance of cool, rebellion, or, in spite of themselves, fame entirely eluded them. Yet as their selected, career compilation Memory Span attests, The Lines were a solid band.
Expertly sequenced, Memory Span is a depiction of growth. In fine detail, it sketches The Lines as they transform from a punky garage band to purveyors of urgent, unpredictable rock music drenched in atmospherics and elaborate funk rhythms. The compilation begins with a collection of early singles that, despite their scrappy under-production, ring with potential. With sly riffing, melodic vocals, and bounding beats, songs like “White Night,” “Not Through Windows,” and “Uneasy Affair” toggle between off-kilter power and budding poetics. Still, it isn’t until The Lines abandon traditional song structures on their 1980 singles that they truly discover their element. “Nerve Pylon” displays a rich melodic range that hearkens back to such pop-rock luminaries as The Left Banke and The Zombies. “Over the Brow” trumps everything before it with a maniacal melding of Middle Eastern melodies, droning brass, and a dub-style rhythmic pulse. These songs, glistening with catchiness and intrigue, set the tone for the remainder of the compilation, which includes high points “Part II” and “Old Town.” The former possesses a minimalist, head-trip groove that echo-plays with distant guitar squelches. “Old Town” is Memory Span’s most rhythmically dynamic track in its melding of tribal beats with a slow, dooming dirge.
As interesting as Memory Span's sonic emergence is, the album still has a few growing pains. “Background,” with its bubbling, bounding backbeat, fails to ignite, and “House of Cracks” is an overwrought take on the devices that make so many of The Lines’ 1980s output work. Yet to dissect this compilation track for track would be missing the point. Instead, if Memory Span is digested as a documentary, a log of what went right and wrong in the lifetime of a wholly under-regarded band, then you’re sure to be rewarded.
1978: Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers
To label Third/Sister Lovers as Big Star’s masterpiece would be misguided. The album doesn't mark the point at which the band perfected their sound (that ship had sailed) or chose to make any sort of definitive statement (except maybe: “Fuck this”). Nor is it technically an album; in fact, Big Star was not even technically a band at the time of Third/Sister Lovers' conception.
Recording sessions began at Memphis’ Ardent Studios in the winter of 1974, when Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were all that remained of the band's original lineup -- founding guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell had dropped out in ’72 when Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, failed to achieve the slightest bit of commercial success, and bassist Andy Hummel quit two years later, after Radio City. Produced by Jim Dickinson, the ’74 sessions featured an impressive guest list of local talent that included guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Richard Rosebrough, and vocalist Lisa Aldridge (Chilton’s then-girlfriend). The end result, all but vomited upon by Stax Records, didn’t see the light of day until 1978, when it was put out by PVC as Third. Since then, the album's been hot-potato'd from label to label, appearing in various forms under various titles. In 1992, Rykodisc released what is still widely recognized as the definitive edition, with a whopping 19 tracks -- most of what was laid down -- though Chilton and Stephens couldn’t agree on the proper sequencing.
Big Star had always undercut their classicist pop with a strange and deliberate darkness of tone, but their first two efforts still might have coughed up a few hits if not for the poor distribution and marketing -- the result of Ardent’s strained relationship with Stax and Columbia. On Third, however, that thread was cut, as Chilton fully embraced the weirdness his songs had only hinted at previously. Listening to this record, it’s easy to image him as an alien being, studying earthly notions of melody and songcraft from some distant galaxy, attempting to emulate us and failing beautifully.
“I want to white OUT!!!” gasps Chilton on “Kizza Me,” the first of the two demented rave-ups that kick off Third. Upside-down piano flourishes collide with sputtering, throbbing guitar riffs; everything swirls and heaves before boiling over into total madness. The bitter, hilarious “Thank You Friends” matches that whacked-out energy and ups the ante by adding a full backing gospel choir. Chilton knocks off a fucked-up Christmas carol (“Jesus Christ”), a chilling cover of The Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” and a psychotic Who-style anthem (“You Can’t Have Me”), all the while sounding like he’s one sniff, toke, or swig away from pulling a Skip Spence.
“Kangaroo” is a smoldering ballad that sounds somewhere between the muted, melancholic pop of White Album-era George Harrison and the pyretic intensity of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop.” Over a bed of open-tuned guitars, unearthly feedback, and seemingly random cowbell thwacks, Chilton slurs his way through a series of eerie yet poignant reminiscences: “I first saw you/ You had on blue jeans/ Your eyes couldn’t hide anything/ I saw you leaving.” In the Ryko liner notes, Dickinson recalls that “Kangaroo is really where the record started to work. Alex defiantly played it for me [and said], ‘If you want to be a producer, do something with this.’”
Third documents Alex Chilton’s choice to stop making choices, to follow his whims and fascinations to whatever end. I’ve yet to familiarize myself with any of his post-Big Star material, but as I understand it, he never again created anything that could be construed as an attempt to sell out or give in. How could he? He’d already seen the edge, and you can’t come back from that.
1994: Elvis Costello - Brutal Youth
Elvis Costello fans were at dire straits in 1994; it had been a good ten years since their man had recorded anything remotely resembling his rock masterpieces. Some of his non-rock records of the period -- 1986’s folky King of America and 1989’s quirky Spike -- were great, while others were, well, Mighty Like a Rose. So when Brutal Youth reunited Costello with his beloved Attractions, fans were more than ready for it.
Of course, there was no way to live up to the fans' expectations, and the album didn’t. As “returns to form” go, Brutal Youth is pretty lousy -- nowhere near as brilliant as This Year’s Model or Armed Forces. It’s not bad for an Elvis Costello record. For a record judged on its own merits, however, it’s damn good.
Opening track “Pony St.” is a declaration of intent: the piano-driven intro lets us know we’re not in punk territory, yet there’s a charming wonkiness about it, like a shopping cart with a faulty wheel. The rest of the song is pure Costello, matching a meandering, yet precise melody with a whiff of desperation. It's as if he's sheepishly appealing to fans who deserted him with the (great) orchestral experiment The Juliet Letter a year before. These elements remain for Brutal Youth’s entirety.
Micthell Froom’s production is overly finicky, and it dilutes Costello’s atonal moments (such as the kinda-sorta garage-rock interlude of the otherwise sedate “Rocking Horse Road”), but the songs are some of the best the man has written. From fever dream “This Is Hell” (“‘My Favorite Things’ are playing again and again/ But it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane”) to the playful “Clown Strike,” which sounds like Costello’s Stax-aping Get Happy!! work, there's a lot to like.
Brutal Youth may not be the "comeback” fans were hoping for, but it was the beginning of a new era for Elvis Costello -- with a few exceptions, he's been mostly excellent since the album's release. Costello fans tend to either favor his older or newer sound, but despite successful experimentations, his best music splits the difference.
1973: Carlos Santana / Mahavishnu John McLaughlin - Love Devotion Surrender
Once upon a time, Carlos Santana was a guitarist with lofty thoughts in his mind. Loftier than playing soulless licks over Michelle Branch and Rob Thomas hits, anyway. In 1972, under the tutelage of Shri Chinmoy, he teamed with John McLaughlin, guitarist and leader of the fusion pioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra, to put together an album celebrating the themes of Chinmoy’s teachings. Their intent was to create a work of art that dedicated itself to God and man, and love and dedication to both.
Love Surrender Devotion is the resulting work. The album finds the two with a seasoned group of their buddies: Khalid Yasin (Larry Young) on organ, James “Mingo” Lewis and Armando Peraza on percussion, Doug Pauch on bass and Billy Cobham, Don Alias and Jan Hammer on the drum kit.
The album opens with a raucous take on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, which sets the template for everything that follows. McLaughlin supplies his usual speed-demon technique, sweeping furiously across the fretboard with plenty of overdrive, while Santana opts for more elongated arcs, often bending and stretching notes in a restrained, yearning fashion. Another Coltrane reading follows, and “Naima” finds the two guitarists hushed and reverent, employing acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. It’s the first (and last) time the album relaxes before the end, and it's over before you realize it.
McLaughlin’s composition “The Life Divine” closes side one, and from its first, stuttered drum beat, one can hear the template for everything The Mars Volta are still trying to pull off. The bass guitar pulses in sync with the galloping drums, while Santana and McLaughlin hold absolutely nothing back. Over prayerful vocal incantations, the two play tug of war with each other, occasionally allowing their parts to dissipate to mere feedback before roaring back to life. It’s brilliant and terrifying, the kind of statement you might expect from Pharaoh Sanders or Sonny Sharrock, not the guy who played “Oya Como Va.”
“Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” also echoes Sanders, who would later go on to try his own hand at the song. It features touches of the Latin rock sound that Santana was employing to great success with his own group. Here Young’s organ playing gets as far out as either of the guitarists, pushing the song into near atonal territory, while McLaughlin and Santana plow through aggressive runs, mimicking with their guitars the qualities Coltrane and Davis exhibited on their instruments. While the MC5 talked about the same thing, and helped invent punk rock in their attempt, their approach lacked the spirituality Santana and McLaughlin are dealing with here. I want to call it destructive, but that’s just not the right term. Passionate, frightening, fierce; all fall short of describing just how on fire these two guitarists sound.
Another McLaughlin composition, “Meditation” closes the album (it’s funny that this is listed as a Santana album, considering he didn’t actually write any tunes for it), allowing the peacefulness of “Naima” to return. Santana contributes graceful flamenco runs over McLaughlin’s subtle piano, and the two bring the album to a mellow close.
If Santana had kept up this sort of sonic freakiness up, you might hear his name tossed around more by esteemed noisemakers like Thurston Moore. And while McLaughlin is well regarded in jazz circles, allowing soulful collaborators like Santana to help balance his often overwhelming approach would certainly have endured him to the rock world at large. Rarely would their following work reach the heights of this album. McLaughlin would continue to hone his chops, and Santana’s work would spiral into the depths of commercial pop. Regardless of record sales, I find it hard to believe that Carlos is still “reaching” while he’s playing over that Nickelback dude’s jam. I guess he must have surrendered to someone or something other than God.