1993: PJ Harvey - Rid of Me
Rid of Me is one of those odd, fucked up instances of artistic immortality – like the bizarre Henry James novella Turn of the Screw – that makes you wonder how a work so recalcitrant became a classic. Even today, it remains awkward, ungainly and raw – less full bodied than some of Harvey’s other work, less driven by characters or narratives. Her first LP, Dry, is not exactly a cheery album either, but compared to Rid of Me it has a lot of spirit. Dry is out all night at parties coming home re-energized by the experience. Rid of Me sounds like its energy is illuminated by a strange mania – dragged over the coals after a bender that spanned lost years in the mid-20s. I still can’t listen to the full album without experiencing what feels very like a sympathetic hangover. Honestly, I often take it in by ingesting the chunks that I can handle and then throwing it away for a while. I always think of classic albums as ones that flow seamlessly. But the songs on Rid of Me stutter and falter, governed by random jolts and impulses of erratic energy.
This is why I think of Rid of Me as a very early 90s album: ornery, hungover, and ugly, and no better man for the job of recording such an album than Steve Albini. Though PJ later hired the ubiquitous Flood to produce To Bring You My Love, Rid of Me is a more representatively messy stab in the entrails, with its metallic, distortion-heavy guitars and frequent screaming.
Harvey always said she liked exploring what was dark and unacceptable. This naturally led to much probing over the years from journalists who thought she must be a crazy she-monster with a feminist agenda. Bravely, politely in her always pleasant West Country tones, Harvey would explain that she was doing this alone as an artist exploring new territories, rather than as a feminist backed by a cause. Judging by the influences she cited at the time of making Rid of Me, Harvey was attempting to harness the dirty power of the blues and rock that she had grown up with (she cited Howlin’ Wolf amongst others). On To Bring You My Love, it was Captain Beefheart who stoked the fires of her strange narratives.
Enter the 33 1/3 series tribute to Rid of Me. Unlike other books in the classic album series, it’s a novel about two women’s escape into a Sapphic relationship. I can’t criticize it as a work of literature, not having read it. But if I were to sum up Rid of Me as a story, it wouldn’t be a fable – and certainly not a fable of escaping into an interior women-only world. PJ Harvey may have been recovering from a failed relationship at the time of making the album, but when she recorded these splintered, heroic tracks, she was playing energetically in the studio with her all-male band. She spoke highly of Steve Albini for his supportive, deliberate fidelity to the band’s sound. It’s not that this can’t be a feminist album if you want it to be. It’s just that the anger – as captured in the studio - is staunchly individualistic, doesn’t expect to be saved or damned, doesn’t expect or ask much – just hinges on the survival of its protagonist.
The line: “I might as well be dead… but I could kill you instead” says it all for me. Rid of Me is PJ’s realist album: in the eye of the storm its extreme emotional circumstances demand extreme unpleasant reactions. It isn’t one of Harvey’s dress-up albums, like To Bring You My Love, or recently, White Chalk. There are no murder ballads, or songs named after doomed women (as on Is This Desire?). The genius of strident songs like “Me Jane” is the extreme irritability of them. “Damn your chest-beating, stop your fucking screaming” – could well be the cry of a harassed female neighbor living underneath’s Tarzan’s flat - or Todd Aikin or whoever is doing the tiresome chest-beating this week.
1994: Rodan - Rusty
I still remember the first time I heard Rusty. I had ordered it weeks prior from a bookstore with no idea what it would sound like. A friend had told me, “Hey, you like Slint? Check out Rodan, they’re even better.” With a recommendation like that I couldn’t resist, and I spent those new couple weeks wondering what I would be in for. Finally it came. I had picked it up and was getting a ride home from a friend and his dad, the dad asked what CD it was and if I wanted to play it. I reluctantly said sure, not really knowing what was to expect.
Thank god for the opening track. If you haven’t heard Rusty’s stunning seven minute opener, please just click the link right now and come back. For an album with a reputation involving the words “post-hardcore,” “math-rock,” and “lots o’ screaming,” the guitar instrumental “Bible Silver Corner” is often overlooked. It sets the perfect ominously beautiful tone for what’s to come, while keeping you in the dark in terms of all the surprises this band has.
Seven minutes. The car ride took six and a half, and I got my CD back without hearing track two. Had we been stuck at an extra light or something and allowed another 30 seconds, the speakers would have exploded with “Shiner,” a brief blast of hardcore at the polar opposite of the gentle opener. Thankfully I was able to avoid that awkward situation, get home and hear Rusty from start to finish for the first time.
Spiderland is kind of a slow build until the end, Rodan gives you their strongest moment as the centerpiece of the album. After the lengthy complex guitar workout and “Shiner’s” raving hardcore freak-out comes “The Everyday World of Bodies,” an 11-minute synthesis of the two. Guitarists Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble’s guitars are constantly shifting and transforming into new sections, as do the vocals which go everywhere from barely-there whispers to blood curdling screams. That final section, with the call-and-response (although scream-and-scream-back-louder is probably more appropriate) of “I WILL BE THERE (SWEAR!)” still gives me chills.
While the first half of Rusty consists of that perfectly logical evolution to “Bodies,” it sort of plateaus in the second half. That’s a good thing. Songs like “Jungle Jim” and “Gauge” explore and develop the sound introduced by “Bodies,” but with an added surprise: bassist Tara Jane O’Neil. Her vocals create a tremendous impression and without her sudden vocal appearance half way through the album, Rusty could have been at risk of sounding a little same-y by the end. Instead she adds wonderful personality to the songs she sings on, especially closer “Tooth Fairy Retrubution Manifesto,” where her mumbled vocals eventually turn into fierce growls as Noble and Mueller slice through with shimmering harmonics.
The frustrating fact is Rusty might forever be cursed to play second fiddle. Just as Ride’s Nowhere is an album people come to after spending a great deal of time with Loveless, many people (myself included) came across Rusty due to its endless comparisons to Slint’s Spiderland. But while it is similar to Spiderland in sound, Rusty is a progression of it, not a retread. The comparisons, to me, have less to do with the distinctive musicianship, and more with the real sincerity coming through on the records. Sincerity is something that has seemed increasingly elusive for bands labeled “post-rock” that are willing to float by with complex but predictable songs and long pretentious names, but Rodan is more than weird time signatures. It has a sense of gravity to it from the moment you hear the first darkly elegant notes of “Bible Silver Corner,” and there’s toughness thanks in part to Bob “Rusty” Weston, the album’s engineer and namesake.
I still have that same CD that I ordered back in high school, though it’s considerably worse for wear. I started listening to the album again recently as I’m sure many people did after what happened last month. For the first time in a few years, the experience left me really happy. I was surprised at how familiar and great these songs which I hadn’t visited in so long still felt. It’s been amazing being able to rediscover them, I just wish it was under different circumstances.
RIP Jason Noble.
1967: Tomorrow - “My White Bicycle”
Long before Yes became one of the main pillars of 70s prog and an unofficial inspiration for 00s indie rock ambition (See Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and The Decemberists’ Crane Wife for two examples), Steve Howe had already proven himself an amazing musician. His fluid guitar work with occasional excursions into exotic sounds was well cemented by his previous band, Tomorrow. They were a criminally underlooked band that deserves a place in history, if not for being an important lynchpin in psychedelia, then for their ecstatically played music.
Although now considered minor players in the London psychedelic scene – inevitably compared to Pink Floyd’s massive success and recognition – Tomorrow were one of the finest bands in the city playing far out music. On their signature number, “My White Bicycle,” most of the songs seems to be played backwards. Unlike San Francisco hippie bands, they weren’t all about “jamming.” And, unlike the Velvet Underground, they weren’t about testing the listener with noise and challenging sounds and themes. In other words, they weren’t made to be endured, they were made to be enjoyed. Tomorrow reflected a sound that became synonymous with LSD and wild parties, a sound that lasted from Sgt. Pepper until the arrival of folk rock (Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), heavy metal (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple) and, yes, prog rock.
And that’s why I love them. They summoned a ton of simple elements in an organic fashion and made them seem like the most insane thing in the world. Their music was ahead of their time, their performances filled with so much joy, madness, and primal energy that you can’t help but dance and scream with belligerent feeling, even if they are only talking about “green” modes of transportation.
1997: The Conet Project - Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations
If you’re deeply familiar with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as one should be), you know that at the end of “Poor Places,” amid the noise and the feedback, there is a stately female voice repeating the title of the album: Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. What you may not know is that this is a sample from something called a shortwave numbers station. Shortwave numbers stations have been a favorite topic among conspiracy theorists for decades now; they emit mysterious broadcasts of series of numbers, letters, or phrases. The traditional story is that they are used by governments to communicate to spies (and a story in the Daily Telegraph in 1998 confirms this. A spokesman for the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry is quoted as saying, “They’re not, shall we say, for public consumption”). The important part, though, is that they are broadcasts of unknown origin and unknowable content, issuing forth, waiting to be interpreted. Wilco was in a legal battle concerning their use of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sample, and their side of the argument hinged on the fact of the audio’s mysteriousness: who can own a sample that has no fixed origin or creator?
Wilco was being sued by Irdial-Discs, who released The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations in 1997. This album is the result of years of laborious study by label head Akin Fernandez, who spent long hours tracking these stations and keeping a log of his findings. It consists of 150 recordings of shortwave numbers stations with track titles such as “Three Note Oddity” and “Czech Lady.” Originally a labor of love for Fernandez, these recordings have gained a cult following in the 15 years since their release. Fernandez’s legal win over Wilco financed a second pressing of the record in 2004, and although the vinyl is currently out of print again, the publicity that the case created for the project expanded its audience considerably. It is now available online through the Internet Archive.
Listening to the record, one can tell why it has an appeal for a certain kind of found-sound fetishist. Though the recordings seemingly come from all over the world (they are spoken in English, Spanish, Czech, Russian, German, and Chinese, among other languages, but their points of origin are impossible to guess), they share a lo-fi fuzz and an incessant repetition of words and tones that instill a sense of fascinated dread. They accumulate a bit too much dread in the listener after their five-hour running time is up, but in short sessions these shortwave recordings provide a worthwhile glimpse into a paranoiac world.
1996: The Halo Benders - Don’t Tell Me Now
K Records has always seemed to be blessed with an aura of uncomplicated authenticity. Founded in 1982 by Olympia, Washington’s most quixotic cultural ambassador Calvin Johnson, the label helped lead indie rock to its heyday in the mid to late 90s. Everything about the fiercely independent label — right down to the logo, which was slapdash twee before slapdash twee was A Thing — smacked of DIY wholesomeness that was both unpretentious and endearing. So it’s not surprising that The Halo Benders, one of Johnson’s many pet projects on the label, is responsible for one of the era’s most easily likable albums, 1996’s Don’t Tell Me Now.
A collaborative effort between Johnson and Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch (who’s career was about to hit its pinnacle with Perfect From Now On), the band embodied all the best parts of K Records — and Don’t Tell Me Now pushed all those parts to the fore. The label’s DIY touch underlies much of the the album’s charm. While today lo-fi is nearly always shorthand for “stylized tape fuzz and heavy-handed use of analog sounds,” the lo-fi of this record is understated in a way that has become rare. The songs sound loose and playful; the no-frills recording and production make it seem like you’re listening in on a low-key rehearsal. Tracks like “Halo Bender” and “Planned Obsolescence” shamble along with herky-jerky guitar and languid percussion. Much of the record shares this unguarded breeziness, a slack outlook that seems completely genuine.
Another real appeal comes from the band’s bizarre approach to songwriting — Don’t Tell Me Now is loose and playful by design. After sketching out a song’s structure, Johnson and Martsch would part ways and write lyrics and melodies separately, and rather than pick one, they would use both simultaneously. With Johnson intoning away in his distinctive baritone and Martsch’s adenoidal emoting, each song became a fractured duet with looks that overlapped and clashed. The discrepancy in voices lets you hear each vocal line independently; it also makes the whole operation sound like some deranged back-woods family band led by a retired codger and his teenage son. And if that sounds like an cheap jab, it isn’t. I imagine that’s just the slightly askew outsider sound the two were hoping for.
The trick is particularly effective on songs like “Bombshelter, Pt. 2,” where Johnson drones on about an elaborate plan to muck up the government like a sonorous Ted Kaczynski while his rant is punctuated by Martsch’s earnest crooning. It is simultaneously coolly detached and subtly catchy. Even when both vocalists play up the twee affectations that marked much of K Record’s early releases — on songs like “Flying Carpet” — the approach still completely works.
Overall, the Halo Bender’s reluctance to tighten up their playing and stick to one melody is the record’s major coup. Along with groups like Pavement and early Modest Mouse, the group really perfected transforming loose playing and relaxed energy into effective songwriting, an art that seems rarer and rarer. The current patch of guitar bands basking in the critical limelight — your TV on the Radios, Sleigh Bells, and even your Real Estates — have focus and drive to their songs that gives them a direct immediacy. And that’s great; but sometimes you just want to hear the excitement of a tune that sounds as if it’s held together by chicken wire.
2007: Colleen - Les Ondes Silencieuses
In order to dedicate all her time to figuring out how to make music with her first production software program, Colleen (Cécile Schott) abandoned a perfectly good job as a teacher at a French high school. Just last year, she mastered pottery; this too she abandoned. Her ceramics are very beautiful, like her compositions – both minimalist objects of fragile intricacy with a lot of space at the center. A large part of her musical labor was the painstaking task of recreating her compositions live with acoustic instruments, so the last few years have been understandably spent taking a break and figuring out what to do next musically.
Colleen was bracketed as an electronic artist in the aughts because she used looping pedals and software that blended samples from her own record collection. Her first record was basically an expert collage of her no doubt lovingly curated vinyl collection. I like to think that fans of the itunes genre tag mis-assigned Colleen’s style completely (it was known to happen back then). Her old vinyl record collection perhaps was the unusual musical instrument that made her first album, rather than the invisible computer program that marked her out as an electronic artist.
This is a woman who made a 14 track EP using music boxes (Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique), and spoke of the pleasure she derived from reviving the sounds of the viola da gamba. By Les Ondes Silenceuses, the samples were gone altogether and replaced with acoustic instruments. Even the loops were less evident. “Echoes and Coral” was a track that explored the unusual perfection of struck crystal glasses. Other instruments used on the record were the spinet (a form of harpsichord), classical guitar, and clarinet.
The album has the feel early recorded music – an alternative to classical music in the early twentieth century, and almost as much of an underground obsession as experimental and electronic music for adventurous collectors (the impetus for the founding of the Nonesuch label, in fact). In Colleen’s career electronic music seems to have flowed back out again, to the still waters – Les Ondes Silenceuses – of her most recent record, which explores the sonic possibilities of forgotten acoustic instruments.
There is an Indonesian word for a group of instruments that are tuned to be played together and are rarely played separately. One of Colleen’s songs is called “Gamelan” after this term. Of course I searched the internet expecting to find an exotic, individual instrument crafted from the fine hairs of an Asian breed of rabbit (not precisely, but you get my drift). Les Ondes Silenceuses sounds like it was made for a gamelan. In many ways the album’s compositions are the sum of their instruments – their voices, their possibilities, their melancholy. It will be interesting to see whether Colleen will continue to explore the experimental possibilities of older, acoustic instruments on her next record, or whether she will dust off her electronic tools again. Either way, the result will no doubt sound as if this selection was the final one.