1992: Skullflower - IIIrd Gatekeeper
Swans’ grand triumph in year-end lists and polls seems nothing less than heroic, and it’s well deserved. Their approach is defined by violence with the artistic vision of a rottweiler. Even at their most subtle, there’s always a suggestion of blood engorging veins and curdling around vocal cord; its implications whispered to chilling effect.
They also represent a strain of music that influenced miscreants the world over. The Swans diaspora has one of its best prophets incarnated in Matthew Bower, whose Skullflower project pummels and grinds in a way all its own. Of course, he acknowledges the root of their sound.
Bower came from a much more severe musical background than Swans. Some of the Broken Flag label releases housed some of the most hateful and depraved words this side of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, Skullflower weren’t offensive or repulsive. Its aggression is a means to develop a psychedelic sort of art; tribal drums punch the soundscape throughout, guitars pummel with feedback and beat the crap out of the listener with dissonant chords, but it’s aggression is never directed at him/her. The feeling is that the violence is stopped within.
Most of their music sounds improvised but seems to have a direction and craft, something not entirely present in records of this kind. IIIrd Gatekeeper feels like an abstract painting in the way it unfolds and splatters sound in a chaotic but magnificent way. While songs have always been the cornerstone of Swans, Skullflower take the approach and atmosphere of their main influence to make something sprawling, pointing another direction in which Gira and company might go had they taken Bower’s route.
Matthew Bower has had a share of brilliant bands (Total, Pure, Hototogisu, Sunroof!), but Skullflower, like a gang beatdown in the middle of an alley late at night, remains undeniably memorable.
2003: So - So
The unassumingly named duo So didn’t do themselves any favors by opting to self-title their only release. Though considering the songs on 2003’s So are dominated by a tension between the digital and the human, its frustratingly Google-resistant title is only fitting.
A collaboration between German glitch pioneer Markus Popp and Japanese singer-songwriter Eriko Toyoda, So is an endeavor built on bridging divides — divides created by language, by geography, and by aesthetics. That duality comes through on each track, where opposing elements come together alternately supporting each other or sounding downright antagonistic. It’s not surprising that in an interview with Splendid Popp claimed the album’s production was punctuated with fierce arguments.
This quality is most obvious in the treatment of Toyoda’s vocals throughout the album. Toyoda’s presence is enhanced by the processing in some instances — i.e. the warm vocoder textures on “f” — while being chopped to bits and buried in dissonance elsewhere. Listening to the various contortions the vocals go through is one of the main joys of So — soft cooing melodies fit for a lullaby will give way to robotic humming and electronic whirrs reminiscent of an R2-D2 taking a laser to the gut. It’s often difficult to tell whether you’re hearing a woman’s voice being processed beyond recognition or just a simulacrum being wrested form a circuit board.
Those familiar with Popp’s more characteristic work (more Poppular?) like the icy, distant explorations of Oval might be surprised at the warmth of this album. While there are shades of the jittery energy and hard edges you’d find on 2010’s O, this work is generally more accessible. The songs have a melodies, repeating phrases, and an inviting airiness. The track “d” begins with delicate vocal whispers that call to mind Julianna Barwick while the closer “j” has a long, slow white noise burn — current fans of Grouper would be pleased.
Really, despite Popp’s relatively bigger name he’ll only take credit for being “kind of [an] art director;” the majority of the album’s strength’s are Toyoda’s. The composition and processing are largely her own, as are the original recordings from Japan. Listening to her excellent solo work — a collection of fantastic albums filled with whispy vocals and excellent electronic work — Popp’s real success here is exercising such a light touch. Seriously, I have on Toyoda’s recent album Have You Smiled Today? And it’s wonderful. It seems unfair that the majority of information Google can find on So doesn’t put her in the spotlight. Maybe I’m just searching in the wrong language; there are always more divides to bridge.
2002: Casino Versus Japan - Whole Numbers Play the Basic
Bradford Cox would have made a hell of a music promoter if he hadn’t decided to form Deerhunter. I first heard of Casino Versus Japan several years ago from Cox’s best of decade list. The man has a way of talking about a band that makes you want to listen. He’s always been a very vocal music fan, so when he put a weird little electronica album in his top 20 of the 2000s I felt I needed to check it out. It turns out he was justified. Over the years I keep coming back to Casino Versus Japan’s stunning 2002 album Whole Numbers Play the Basic; an electronic record of such warmth and charm.
The comparison people always jump to has been Boards of Canada, but I don’t buy it. Erik Kowalski may dig nostalgia, but he shoots for a different aesthetic with Casino Versus Japan. While BoC creates vignettes and distinct scenes throughout their records, Kowalski is more focused on taking a few motifs and giving them space to develop and breathe over the course of the record. Also, while BoC’s form of nostalgia often has a ghostly layer of creepiness, an album like Whole Numbers is sunny and optimistic as it looks back at the past. Kowalski’s greatest skill is in taking complex and multi layered tracks and making them sound effortlessly simple.
The sequencing is one of the records greatest strengths to the point where instead of individual tracks sticking with you, a certain pairing or run of a couple songs become highlights. The run of tracks from the opener “Variation of the Two” is a strange trip, but it flows like water. The hazy hip-hop of “Moonlupe” gives way to the tranquil but jittery “Aquarium,” which hypnotizes you over five minutes, just to break the spell with the 70 second burst of sunshine that is “The Possible Light.” There are little journey’s like that throughout the record.
A couple years ago I got to see Erik Kowalski as one of the openers at a Deerhunter show, maybe a year after Cox made that list. He came on first, and started performing for a very small crowd. No one there seemed to be familiar with him, and a one guy was complaining that he thought Real Estate was supposed to be opening (for what it’s worth they came on next, looking vaguely pissed, and complained about the sound for most of the set. It was uncomfortable to say the least.) There wasn’t a huge crowd for him, and some loudly talking people didn’t seem to be paying attention, but Kowalski was just killing it, creating his own world on stage and (if you gave him a chance) bringing you into it. Afterwards as he sat at his merch table, I thanked him for his set, checked out his CDs and quickly headed back to the stage. Deerhunter played a great set, but the best part of that night was Casino Versus Japan and I wish I’d told him that at that table. At the end of his artist bio on rateyourmusic.com Kowalski wrote, “One of my goals is to have 50 records created before i die.” That’s a pretty difficult goal, (and the project’s output has slowed considerably), but he shouldn’t worry, because something as utterly gorgeous as Whole Numbers Play the Basic could top 50 records from a lesser artist.
1987: The Replacements - Pleased to Meet Me
By Bill Holdship
CREEM, September 1987
For the most part, I hate rock ‘n’ roll.
Probably not the smartest thing to admit in print, and I wish it wasn’t true. I used to love it. Worshipped it. Thought it was one of the most important things in my life. Just the mention of it could conjure up images that were like magic. In many ways, rock ‘n’ roll had replaced Disneyland. Today, I generally prefer Disneyland.
Because – beyond all the hype and the fakery and the right radio sound and the talentless dreck and the I’m cooler than you isms and the nausea – rock ‘n’ roll was always funny. Elvis was funny. So was James Brown. The Beatles were comic geniuses. Both Dylan and The Stones could be hilarious in their irreverence. Jim Morrison belched into his microphone during the quiet part of “When the Music’s Over” at the Hollywood Bowl. That’s funny. From doo wop through punk, rock ‘n’ roll always had a sense of humor, even when it was being serious or brutal, especially when it was being great. It wasn’t a bunch of “superstars” — probably one tenth of the talent John Lennon possessed — sitting around being more serious and more pretentious and more morose than Lennon ever imagined. Working class heroes, indeed.
For the most part, I love the Replacements.
“It’s not that you hate rock ‘n’ roll,” says Tommy Stinson. “It’s that you hate everything that goes with rock ‘n’ roll.
And we aren’t rock ‘n’ roll, we play rock ‘n’ roll. We aren’t rock ‘n’ roll.”
After a short pause, Paul Westerberg retorts in his gravelly voice that’s only going to get raspier before this night is through: “We are, too!”
“We’re not fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll,” replies Tommy with his ever present laugh. “We don’t wear tight pants and we’re not on the radio and…”
“But that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll,” says Paul. “See, that’s the whole thing.”
* * * *
I don’t wanna make any grand proclamations here or anything, but the Replacements are probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world right now. And Pleased To Meet Me is probably the best rock LP of 1987, if not the ’80s. If you’ve ever loved rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve gotta love this record.
1983: Daniel Johnston - Yip/Jump Music
Jesse Thorn claims to be beyond irony. Using his popular show The Sound of Young America as a bully pulpit, the ever-buoyant podcast star advocates for a New Sincerity. Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? A New Sincerity. It comes off as simultaneously intelligent and humane, like a cross between a critical theory treatise and a note from Grandma. There’s a problem though: Thorn’s idea is bunk, and Daniel Johnston already provided a better approach back in 1983.
In his “A Manifesto for The New Sincerity” Thorn points to Evel Knievel as the icon of his movement. The Carter-era daredevil is presented as an irony obliterating figure whose outsized persona and accomplishments put him beyond any academic eggheading.
Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things… [He] boggles the mind.
Essentially, for Thorn, Knievel is beyond discussion; his mythic stature can only be approached in a state of awe. Which is fine for Thorn, because in his formulation, New Sincerity boils down to seeing things as awesome. Here, sincerity means complete uncritical appreciation. To put a point on it, he claims his movement’s credo is “Be More Awesome.” That is his path out of irony: thinking things are neat. It’s a personal philosophy about as much as “Restore America” is a political platform.
Thorn’s millennial take on New Sincerity is plain boring. Its definition of sincere is uncomplicated in a way that suggests complicated and sincere are mutually exclusive. It’s a lazy heuristic through which to engage the world. But here’s the thing: complexity and sincerity are not mutually exclusive. They often have a very direct relationship where the former supports the the latter. This is where Texas comes in.
The phrase New Sincerity was in use before Thorn applied it to his bro-friendly philosophy. It referred to a music scene localized to Austin, TX where the trappings of gen-X prickliness was being eschewed in favor of more direct expression. The embodiment of this sincerity wasn’t a motorcycle-mounted carnival entertainer, but the slightly strange singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Having built a following based on his highly idiosyncratic self-produced tapes, Johnston was already a prominent figure around town when he released his fifth album on Stress Records, Yip/Jump Music. It is not an easy listen. While the tracks have an endearing sing-song quality, the lo-fi production and Johnston’s quavering vocals create a certain bar for entry — a close analog would be the late-60s outside-pop trio The Shaggs. Listen to the opener “Chord Organ Blues” and you’ll get an idea for the aesthetic. The combination of the raw audio quality, rudimentary instrumentation, and straightforward lyrics creates a song that feels overwhelmingly genuine.
You have to keep in mind that this was before the success of twee acts and lo-fi labels like K Records codified these stylistic markers into marks of authenticity. If listening to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” sounds uncomfortably intimate now, it certainly did in 1983. This track — one of the album’s standouts — finds Johnston delivering a pep talk from a place of real vulnerability. When he sings “Do yourself a favor/ Become your own savior,” the crack in his voice hints that this bit of advice was probably hard-won from personal experience.
The emotional directness throughout Yip/Jump only becomes more affecting when paired with Johnston’s biography. Within a few years of the cassette’s release, Johnston’s eccentricity would give way to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, debilitating conditions that would frequently threaten his life and career. This isn’t to make Johnston out like some kind of savant. His creative triumphs aren’t the result of his emotional difficulty and psychic pain, it’s more nuanced: His triumph is the ability to articulate these interior states. Songs like “I Remember Painfully” work because Johnston doesn’t shy away from letting the world know how he feels, even when it’s awkwardly personal.
This is what makes Johnston’s New Sincerity more deserving of the title. Thorn’s concept is defined by unmitigated appreciation of something in the world; Johnston’s is about unfettered expression about something in himself, even when it’s complex and difficult. It’s self-conscious consumption versus sincere creation. Essentially, it’s easy to think a speeding motorcycle is awesome, but it’s even more awesome to write a song like “Speeding Motorcycle.”
2002-2007: ZS Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007
There’s an old adage that says, “if something is worth doing (or saying) once, it’s worth doing (or saying) a number of times.” It was brought to bear for me in a 2009 interview with composer-reedman Anthony Braxton, whose reasoning for multiple-disc sets was characterized as, basically, trying to ensure that his point (musical system) came across clearly. While in crucial ways a far cry from Braxton’s improvisation/instant composition-centric work, the values of continual restatement and clarification are borne out in the New York-based chamber ensemble ZS. Formed in 2001 by tenor saxophonists Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek, and currently consisting of Hillmer, drummer Greg Fox, and Patrick Higgins on guitar and electronics, the group has undergone numerous lineup shifts over the last decade-plus. But these shifts are in the course of exploring an extraordinarily intense brand of reactive, process-oriented chamber music.
ZS Score (Northern-Spy) is a four-disc retrospective of the group’s sextet phase (2002-2007), leading up to and concluding shortly after Mincek’s departure. In addition to the saxophonists, ZS then consisted of guitarists Matthew Hough and Charlie Looker and drummers Ian Antonio, Brad Wentworth, and Alex Hoskins. The four discs collect the proper LPs ZS, Buck, and Arm as well as ZS Remixed, untitled (a single-sided ten-incher), Magnet, and Karate Bump, in addition to singles, outtakes and compilation tracks. This music was spread across a number of labels including Troubleman Unlimited, Planaria, and Ricecontrol before being unified in one place. Other than a piece by SEM Ensemble founder and director Petr Kotik (“For Zs”) and Earle Brown’s “Four Systems,” all of the compositions represented here are by members of the group.
Taking a couple of slices from the second disc, Hillmer’s “In My Dream I Shot a Monk” is a fine example of the group’s merger of a confrontational and punkish aesthetic, as shouted vocals and didactically-paced guitar, percussion, and saxophone owe a debt to no wave confrontation a la Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, albeit hotter and given to studied/pissed deliberation. “Four Systems” is given two incarnations, a three-minute edit (from the Tzadik CD Folio and Four Systems) and a more customary twelve-minute version. A graphically scored piece originally intended for pianist David Tudor, it has been interpreted by a number of chamber ensembles as an exploration of narrow dynamic range and clustered, oblique sonic movement. Tenor harmonics, muted percussion and flinty string jabs make for a wiry version, though it’s important to recognize that Brown’s piece doesn’t necessarily ask for improvisation, and ZS follow the composition’s bunched filaments with dirty and measured logic. The studio recordings are extremely well-recorded, and at no point does their aesthetic become obscured by faulty renderings.
The live material is particularly fine, all of which was on the Buck cassette (Folding/Gilgongo), and it presents the group’s primary working method intact, which was (and is) to flesh out the repertoire in front of an audience at house shows, bars, and punk clubs (not exactly the logical place for “chamber music,” but people like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca turned that concept on its head over thirty years ago). Depending on the place and piece, the live takes can be thin and spry or pummeling anthems, but they remain aggressively tight as the group moves through tone rows, intervallic relationships and stuttering inflections, offset by explosive choogle and hollering witnesses. The idea of brutal-prog/emphatic minimalism in the form of a touring tenor/guitar/drums double trio is sort of hard to imagine – especially as given to the PBR-swilling masses – but ZS clearly develop their work through a curiously tense rapport both internal and external. And as rigorous as this music is, when a vaguely Caribbean rhythm creeps into “Bump,” and despite a couple of (admittedly hilarious) drunken hecklers, there is something fascinatingly inviting about ZS’ process. There is a hell of a lot to take in on ZS Score, but it’s well worth the time and investment in this excellently-presented set.