1967: Priscilla Paris - Priscilla Sings Herself
The Paris Sisters — Albeth, Sherrell and Priscilla — were born in San Francisco, daughters of an opera singer whose career ended with the birth of her first child. This is a familiar setup for the story of a pushy stage mom, and sure enough, the Paris girls were on stage from a very young age, dancing and singing in a sister act with their mother Faye at the piano. The girls were big fans of The Andrews Sisters, listening to their records and rehearsing pitch-perfect renditions of their most popular songs. When The Andrews Sisters came to San Francisco for a limited engagement, Faye kept her daughters out of school so they could attend every performance. Eventually the sisters were invited backstage, where they impressed the Andrews with their poise and impressive vocal harmonies.
They were signed to MCA in short order, thus beginning a long stretch of years in which the girls were experimented upon by various labels and producers, all of whom failed to find a niche for their unique talents. It wasn’t until Phil Spector got hold of the sisters in 1961 that they blossomed into a fully-realized girl group. Spector gave the girls two of his best early songs (“Be My Boy” and “I’ll Be Crying Tomorrow”), and created wistful pop-symphonic arrangements that emphasized their innocence and femininity. Most importantly, Spector encouraged them to abandon the outmoded close-singing style of The Andrews Sisters, to instead sing softly and sweetly, with youngest sister Priscilla taking the lead.
Another Spector production, “I Love How You Love Me” was released that same year and quickly became a massive hit, selling more than a million copies. Though they would never again experience success at that level, The Paris Sisters were a popular act, and continued to record and perform throughout the 60s, with subsequent producers following the same basic formula Spector had created for the group. In 1967, Priscilla struck out on her own as a solo artist, leaving Albeth and Sherrell behind. For years she had been writing songs on her guitar, and had a passion for songwriting and performing that her older sisters did not share. Priscilla’s solo career consists of two obscure albums: Priscilla Loves Billy, a strange little collection of Billie Holiday covers, and Priscilla Sings Herself, the culmination of her long-gestating desire to become a singer-songwriter. The latter album, released in 1967 on York Records, failed to ignite much interest on the part of the public, now in the throes of The Summer of Love. Priscilla eventually left the country and moved to her namesake city where she spent the rest of her days painting, playing guitar, and raising two sons. She died in 2004 at the age of 59.
Today, a mint condition copy of Priscilla Sings Herself can cost as much as $300. Many copies of the album were destroyed due to poor sales, increasing the rarity of the LP. The resurgence of interest in 1960s girl groups and Phil Spector productions has resulted in a steadily growing reputation for Priscilla and The Paris Sisters over the past few years. For proof, consider this: when I started researching this piece, the album was not available in any form, having never been reissued; even torrent sites and music blogs were no help. By the time I finished, Ace Records announced a CD reissue of Priscilla’s solo albums complete with outtakes, due next month. This reissue will be my first opportunity to hear Priscilla Sings Herself in its entirety. For years I’ve had to reconstruct the album in my imagination from fragments scattered across various bootlegs. The melancholic “My Window” appeared on Boyd Rice’s Music For Pussycats compilation, duped directly from his scratched-up LP. The haunting “Help Me” and “He Noticed Me” appeared on The Paris Sisters Story, an expensive bootleg CD. And my favorite, “Stone Is Very, Very Cold,” was uploaded to YouTube by a generous user who has consistently failed to answer my messages begging for a rip of the vinyl.
Perhaps it is the scarcity of the album — even in an age when we like to imagine that the entire history of recorded music is just a few clicks away — that lends it such a mysterious and enchanting aura. Maybe, but probably not. More likely it is Priscilla herself who is responsible for the fetish-object status of the record. At a time when soul phrasing was the fashion, Priscilla sang softly, mutely, strangely, unafraid to project a palpable sense of melancholy. Her songs were haunting and subtle, never sacrificing an essential fragility and sadness. This may be the reason many listeners today are uncomfortable with this brand of vintage girl pop; in the wake of feminism, how can we be nostalgic for a time when women were encouraged to play up their own lovelorn frailty?
Among girl groups The Paris Sisters stood out, possessing the restrained sensibility of an older generation, never adopting the forthright sexuality of groups like The Shirelles or The Shangri-Las. Although late 60s publicity shots played up her resemblance to French “sex kitten” pop stars like Brigitte Bardot, Priscilla never traded on her sexuality in her music. In hindsight, this chasteness is both admirable and estranging, perhaps accounting for the diminished reception her solo albums received. Part of the work of contemporary feminism is the critical reassessment of texts produced by women of past generations, especially those that were initially dismissed as the product of patriarchy. Listening to Priscilla Sings Herself in that charitable critical spirit may yield some interesting surprises.
2005 -: The Evens
Because The Evens weren’t Fugazi, a lot of people in 2005 thought they must be folk. NPR even found ‘lilting melody’ in the albums. But all the usual angular rhythms were there and the protest element was this time directed at the ire-friendly Bush administration. Whatever else they may have been, The Evens weren’t folk.
The combined chorus of Amy Farina’s voice and drums and Ian MacKaye’s guitar was on the surface bright and cheery, resembling a more traditional indie or college rock sound – but still, not folk. Instead of choosing the personal or introspective, MacKaye and Farina continued to make their punk statements about the rights, the limitations and the power of the individual human voice. Harmonies were there, but melodies were often sung in bold unison. On Get Evens MacKaye and Farina used their vocals to fight back with songs like “Everybody knows you are a liar,” which struck at the Capitol from the Capitol; one line proclaimed “This City is Ours;” reminding us that D.C. is also the city of hardcore (or post-post hardcore, as the Washington Post called The Evens – past caring about genre definitions even in 2005, though still recognizing that this was some form of hardcore – not folk).
In this strange context, I learned that Ted Nugent – the conservative bogeyman of the moment – was an influence of MacKaye. Nugent’s clean living, straight edge approach (before MacKaye coined the term) as well as his virtuosic guitar playing are interesting, slightly unexpected points of comparison for the music of Fugazi and The Evens.
Instrument Soundtrack was the last album Fugazi made before MacKaye started The Evens. For some it’s a footnote: a laid back collection of demos and doodles, but for me it was a stripped back affair that – like the long awaited documentary it was made to soundtrack – displayed the anatomy of Fugazi’s dense, well-sprung and off kilter rock ‘n’ roll. At times MacKaye’s later projects – like The Evens and Instrument – remind me of the ideas that an artist finally reveals when they release their sketchbooks to the public. Even if the music becomes less urgent, and we discover incongruous photos of denim-shirted Ted Nugent pasted up in this scrapbook, it seems to take us into the inner workings of an energetic collective of musicians in a way that previous albums only hinted at.
1978: Pere Ubu - Dub Housing
“That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.” – David Thomas
It’s a fun exercise when listening to a band to put oneself in the context of its time, but try as I might I still can’t picture what the hell people must of thought when Dub Housing came out in 1978. It was punk, but everything was skewed. The synthesizers were too dancey to be cool, the music was too weird and aggressive to be pop, and beyond anything was the absolutely booming presence of David Thomas who comes off as more opera singer than punk rocker.
That quote from Thomas above is particularly poignant, because even if it may be true, Pere Ubu are disastrous in the most grandiose way. That spirit still rings true from their peers (especially Talking Heads) in the 70s to bands now like of Montreal who make theatricality their business. That was what they did best and it reminds me every single time I put “Navvy” on and hear Thomas shouting (with a voice big enough to match his formidable size) “I HAVE DESIRE.” They embrace the disaster to the point of transcending it. Boy! That sounds swell.
2007: Planes Mistaken For Stars - We Ride To Fight! (The First Four Years)
In their time, Planes Mistaken For Stars were considered a second rate act, neither innovators nor pioneers. Nowadays, they still aren’t recognized for changing the rules of the game; in fact, I’m not sure you can qualify them as revolutionary. At the very least, they were a band that clearly marked a transition for certain artists and sounds.
Taking their cues from Rites of Spring, Heroin, and Still Life, PMFS were a frenetic, inspired bunch. Later, they would become a little heavier and straighter, but their first four years – outlined by their self titled mini-album, three EPs, and some comp tracks – are what gave them their place in the nebulous “midwestern emo” scene of the late 90s. Back then, their music was propelled by punk rock energy like they didn’t give a crap, yet had moments of vulnerability and nostalgia, voiced by the hoarse throat of Gared O’Donnell over arpeggiated chords. Take, for example, the song “The Part You Left Out,” which bangs straight ahead until the break, a calming part where the tempo remains steady, yet things get sensible without losing aggression, ready to assault the ears and nerves again. Other songs like “Somewhere in September” take the sentimentally gentler approach similar to when Rites of Spring would slow down to really hang their feelings and poetry books for everyone to see and feel along with them.
Planes Mistaken For Stars might not have had a large cult following or mainstream recognition, but they inadvertently pioneered a method of expression put to wider use by bands like Thursday, Thrice and, most recently, Touché Amoré and Pianos Become the Teeth. They plainly rocked and screamed their throats raw with powerful feelings that still resonate on the grooves of their records and those by their descendants.
2003: V/A - It’s Only Rock’N’Roll (But We Like It): A Tribute to The Rolling Stones
At some point in my life I was listening to too much Japanese pop music, and the reason I have this compilation is because it included a track by Zazen Boys, who I was obsessed with and still rep for having one of the best rhythm sections in music period. The Zazen Boys covered “Emotional Rescue,” a fitting choice as it’s one of the Stones’ sexiest hits. The rhythm section of the original is pretty damn great, but the Zazen Boys update it with a fucked up slide guitar panned hard-left and plenty of amazing drum fills.
Listening to the rest of the album is always an adventure though. Sometimes I think the initial concept for the compilation was just a dub/reggae Stones tribute. Maybe they ditched it halfway through and decided to mix in the Reggae tracks with the other ones. Maybe not. Either way, the genres are varied. Miyuki Hatakeyama opens the album with a Bossa Nova take on “Satisfaction” that still sort-of scares me, and Double Famous’ jazzy, hand-drum-flavored take on “Sympathy for the Devil” is enchanting. Choro Azul has a barebones take on “Paint It Black” with a Spanish-guitar and some light hand percussion. That’s not the only version of “Paint It Black” though. The dub version by Kazufumi is in the middle of the album and fulfills an apparent “every other song must be reggae” rule.
There are certain albums that always have a special place within your collection. This is one of mine. I hope you can find the whole thing on some filesharing site or soulseek or Amazon Japan. Sure it’s an oddly compiled collection of bizarre Japanese Stones covers, but that’s part of the allure. More importantly, there are some really great songs on this thing. It’s a perfect summertime record to accompany your light reading and Bud Light Limes.
1992: John Oswald - Plexure
Perhaps the greatest part of reading John Dos Passos’ famous U.S.A. trilogy are his sections of “Newsreel.” The author chopped printed clippings of newspaper headlines and song lyrics apart and put them back together to paint an accurate picture of a nation on the verge of collapse. The technique may have been ahead of its time, but the message was not; the 1930s were a time to be scared and the headlines carried a double meaning once rearranged. Dos Passos’ vision of a doomed world was made all the more powerful by his use of other people’s writings and lyrics. The spirit of plunderphonics, at its purest, began here.
John Oswald, who would invent that term nearly half a century after Dos Passos’ masterpiece, performed a similar technical feat in the early 90s. 1993’s Plexure, in a nutshell, consists of about 1000 artists weaved together into a piece of music that clocks in under 20 minutes; dense does not even begin to describe this exercise in speed-of-light editing.
Plexure existed outside any of the reference points expected from sample based music, in fact it doesn’t even compare that well to the earlier plunderphonic experiments. The original plunderphonics were generally treatments of a single song, and never obscured the origin of the source material. When Oswald manipulated tape in the Dolly Parton track “Pretender” in order to recreate her as a man the effect was dependent on the audience recognizing the original pop tune. From the start you can tell it’s Dolly, and that recognition makes the transformative effect all the more powerful.
Here Oswald prevented any chance of recognition by splicing these hundreds of songs into samples that rarely last more than a fraction of a second. In a 1994 interview he explained how Plexure rejects some of the basic principals of plunderphonics; the samples are not manipulated in anyway, the transmutation comes entirely by the recontextualization within the greater piece.
“If you compare with your audio microscope a small part of a second of one layer of the composition with its comparable source it sounds exactly the same. There is no distortion or noise, or electronic obfuscation. It is an electroquote.” - John Oswald
These electroquotes, when combined into the overall piece, don’t create a major conceptual thesis. Despite the massive influence Oswald has over artists such as Matmos and Oneohtrix Point Never, he never attempts to create something with the conceptual crispness of Replica or The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast. Plexure works more like Dos Passos’ books, or (if you’re looking for something a little more lowbrow) I would actually compare it to EverythingIsTerrible’s DoggieWoggiez PoochieWoochiez* in its attempt to catalog a specific point in time through its pop culture. Oswald said Plexure was inspired by the CD era that began in 1982, and pulled samples from that moment up until the year he was living in, and the patchwork he expertly sewed together expresses the incredible speed in which things began to move as the 90s began not just culturally, but technologically. Kids can do some of the things Oswald was doing in ‘92 on their fucking iPhones now – of course that wouldn’t make up for the vision with which he formed this psychotic bricolage that feels as relevant today if not more so.
* An incomprehensible 55 minutes that deserves every bit of over-the-top praise it gets. This movie takes what “Newsreel” and William S. Burroughs started with cut-up exercise, which Oswald converted into sound collage, and moves it into the realm of cinema, with stunning success. Oswald’s 1000 CDs in 20 minutes became EIT’s 1500 VHS tapes in 60.