1987: Sonic Youth - “Schizophrenia”
This is where Sonic Youth finally delivered on all the promise their early work hinted at. Don’t get me wrong, almost everything they did before their 1987 masterpiece Sister was pretty damn good, but the noise-pop gem “Schizophrenia” that kicks off the album is the band’s single greatest accomplishment. Sonic Youth had been experimenting with alternately tuned guitar workouts for years and they were no strangers to mutilating a pop song or two live, but “Schizophrenia” was the first instance where they injected an original “pop” – in the loosest sense of the word – composition with their own unique noisy jangle. The song begins with a simple drum figure and stays relatively tame and straightforward for the remainder of the verse. It’s only after Thurston’s singing stops that the band enters transcendental-jam mode and whisks listeners away. Lee and Thurston trade harmonic pings back and forth as Kim’s haunting chants lead the band into a dramatic swell. Then Lee and Thurston steal the show again with another guitar blitz before the song slows down and crawls to a creepy finish. I’ll go ahead and say it, this is probably my favorite song of all time. Late 80s Sonic Youth was forcing everyone to rethink the guitar’s role in pop songs – check out the excellent “Expressway to Yr. Skull” for further proof – and “Schizophrenia” is their most perfect statement from that era.
It has been nearly two years since the collapse of the Providence, RI band Daughters. Their eponymous 2010 album (which had deservedly earned them exposure) felt so much like a fresh start, yet it came stillborn, released well after their apparent ugly breakup. Frustratingly, there has never been a definitive disbanding, though half the members have left. Singer Alexis Marshall and drummer Jon Syverson could potentially come back with more material, but with every passing month it seems less likely. What we have in their absence are the few recorded documents of a band that, while perhaps not recognized during their existence, should only grow in recognition and admiration.
For a band that played together for eight years Daughters, originally formed by members of also-defunct As The Sun Sets, have a shockingly small discography. From 2001-2009 their recorded material amounts to little over an hour. Fortunately numbers becomes irrelevant when you consider their immediacy; the band’s output is one of the greatest examples of quality over quantity in recent memory. The debut album Canada Songs boasts ten songs in 11 minutes, which might seem insignificant if those 11 minutes weren’t honed to a razor edge. There are so many memorable moments crammed in. “Jones From Indiana” is all noise rock until an unexpected shift where drums, piercing guitar, and screaming vocals all meld into a violent groove with a few seconds to spare at the end for a droning coda. “Nurse, would you Please” has Nick Sadler abruptly shifting between his usual splintering guitar screech and moments of prickly precise lucidity. “The Ghost With the Most” builds to the breaking point it feels the album has been rushing towards from the start, until suddenly all the tension falls away and the band locks into a slower pace, losing none of its muscle. Marshall’s screams disappear and are replaced by a surprisingly great singing voice indebted to David Yow. Clearly Canada Songs works best when listened to as one piece, something that early Boredoms benefited from, an important influence here; the album could be Soul Discharge’s kid brother.
Hell Songs (read original TMT review here), released in 2006, is expansive in comparison to the first album. At ten songs in 23 minutes, everything that was introduced on Canada Songs and the debut EP is developed, a shift displayed perfectly on “Recorded Inside a Pyramid.” The production sounds far clearer, the instruments give each other a little more space, the seasick string coda at the end comes out of nowhere but feels appropriate. Marshall’s vocals have turned from high pitched screech to a deeper, half-spoken howl. The vocal refinements allow some fabulous lyrical moments to occur, something absent from Canada’s purely musical pleasures. Lines such as “I wear my sickness like a wedding band,” the chanted “love is a disgusting thing,” and the ominous opening shout of “I’ve been called a sinner,” leave a powerful impression on the listener.
This brings us back to that final album, Daughters, released close to the successful debut of guitarist Sadler’s new band Fang Island, which only seemed to cement the break-up. The album was criticized by its own singer, Marshall, as having a very intentional commercial sound, and none of its songs have ever been toured. While a song like “The Hit” does immediately give its listener a groove that might have been built up to or ignored on previous albums, there is still a tremendous value to it. Experimenting with pop music or accessibility should not intrinsically be perceived as “less than shit,” as Marshall puts it in an interview. Liars followed their most brutal and uncompromising album, Drums Not Dead, with a self-titled release of brilliant pop song interpretations, perhaps the most controversial thing they could have done at the time. Daughters is a streamlined, less alienating version of what the band had been progressing towards – if they are truly dead it’ll make a damn good swan song.
If this is what Daughter’s entire discography will amount to, it stands as a wonderful display of a bands refinement over time. From opener “Hello Assholes” on their first EP to the organ-filled closer “The Unattractive Portable Head,” a highlight of the self-titled, they had an incredibly consistent sound that was nonetheless being honed into something sharper at every opportunity. Regardless of their current status or their shitty demise Daughters will be remembered as the brilliantly uncompromising band that exists on these recordings.
2000: Anthony Braxton - Composition 169
I walked into the basement of a Wesleyan University studio and sat down at the piano for day one of Anthony Braxton’s small ensemble rehearsal. We were handed Composition 169. I opened the part to reveal 1,100 measures of relentlessly unison rhythmic clusters. Reading it for the first time, my fingers were annihilated by rapidly fluctuating successions of time signatures – 9 over 2s, 13 over 4s, 5 over 2s.
After a few weeks of rehearsal and division practice, the ensemble sounded “together.” But there was still a strange disconnect. I was concentrating so hard to play each cluster correctly, and when my brain lapsed it all fell apart musically. “Professor Braxton,” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m still having a tough time getting these rhythms to feel right.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “I’ve been looking at these rhythms for 300 years, and it’ll probably take another 300 years before I can play them correctly.”
We all smiled at Braxton’s sincerely unconventional sense of time, but his comment was enlightening. It wasn’t worth focusing on each individual rhythmic phrase, even though the piece demanded it. Instead, we were forced to internalize, putting the unnaturally complex rhythm in our bodies instead of our minds. The less we counted, the more it locked in.
Returning a few years later to 169, my feelings about it are intensified. Like playing it, 169 demands extremely precise listening and extremely detached listening. It invites analysis while laughing at you for even trying. It creates a world of visceral feelings through an unromantic process and concept. I believe it will retrospectively be regarded as one of Braxton’s most important works.
1972: Hall & Oates - “Fall in Philadelphia”
My brother lives in South Philadelphia, and he turned me on to this excellent song a few years ago. It’s featured on Hall & Oates first album Whole Oats (that title… seriously guys?), but it’s also included on The Atlantic Collection, an excellent compilation of early material for the Philly-based Atlantic Records label.
Both musicians were intertwined with the city of Philadelphia. In their teens they frequented Philadelphia ghettos, joining doo-wop groups on street corners. They met at a battle of the bands in a freight elevator after gunfire scattered the crowd. In ‘69 Hall released a single with a young Gamble Huff (later known for his work with the legendary Philly soul production team Gamble, Leon, and Huff), then after traveling to Europe to sing backup and play with Philly soul bands (Delfonics, Stylistics) Oates came back to Philly and the two collaborated for their folksy, unsuccessful debut on Atlantic.
The album is a solid slab of mellow harmony-laced Philadelphia soul pop, and “Fall in Philadelphia” contextualizes the duo right in the midst of the late 60s/early 70s Philly soul scene. A strong piano line chops through bass notes while a Rundgren-esque guitar solo cuts through the horns for the outro (Rundgren would go on to produce their second album). There’s also one of the smoothest choruses in the band’s gigantic catalog. The thematic arch of the song is what really interests me, though. In the liner notes for The Atlantic Collection Hall states that “the song is about how horrible it is to be in Philadelphia, but they still play it there on the radio every fall. I don’t know why.” This quote jumps out at me on a personal level. I was born in Philadelphia and I’ve often heard the song played on Philadelphia radio stations without a shred of irony.
Unlike Daryl Hall, I think I know why that is. The spirit of Philadelphia has always been difficult for me to conjure to those unfamiliar with it, but the phenomenon surrounding this song comes close to being a perfect representation. Lyrically, it taps into insults often thrown Philadelphia’s way – having been consistently voted fattest, ugliest, dirtiest, meanest, most miserable city. There’s something beautiful in the fact that neither those surveys nor the song can ever really damage Philadelphian’s pride. Instead, the grittiness is exalted and the despair of the song’s chorus (“I’m gonna spend another fall in Philadelphia”) is appropriated as a creed. “Fall in Philadelphia” joins songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” that were received far differently than intended. While “Born in the USA” might forever fail as a patriotic anthem, I’m pretty sure the enduring resignation of “Fall in Philadelphia” will connect with the spirit of Philadelphia much more than Hall & Oates ever care to admit.
1990: Codeine - Second Chance
During a recent phone conversation with an old friend it was pointed out that I use the word “heavy” far too often when talking about music. While I see it as an apt umbrella adjective, I also realized that outside of a dictionary definition I was unable to describe what “heavy” actually means to me. In my mind the word can be used in reference to anything from the instrumentation in doom metal to the dark lyricism of some folk singers.
Obviously a barometer reset was needed before I could start using my apparent favorite adjective again. My personal quest for THE heavy song began. Before it started to sound even more like a plot to a terrible Jack Black comedy, it was ended abruptly with the news of yet another 90s indie rock dream reunion.
Codeine’s debut, Frigid Stars, is already recognized as one of the classic albums that launched the poorly but aptly named slowcore genre (hey, at least the 90s didn’t give us “witchhaus.”) A lot of reviews seem to miss the sheer brutality of the album. Very few records delved into the melancholia explored in full stark detail on Frigid Stars. “Second Chance,” which can only be described as a dirge, is the album’s centerpiece and one of Codeine’s most memorably bleak songs.
Slow and plodding, the only instrumentation is a piano thudding out some semblance of a rhythm while the guitar follows, providing a wall of feedback that bleeds into any spaces left open. The effect is a huge feeling of smothering weight; there is no chance of escaping this steamroller unless you turn it off. That doesn’t even cover the vocals. “I miss your smile/ it’s been awhile” is intoned repeatedly, sung with a lump in the back of Steve Immerwahr’s throat. Yes, it’s overly angst ridden, but Codeine wasn’t exactly a band concerned with metaphorical pondering in their approach to writing.
With its sparse instrumentation, wall of feedback guitar, bare vocals, and prevailing feeling of defeat, “Second Chance” is capable of dragging the listener down and holding them there. I won’t go as far as to call it “the heaviest song ever recorded,” but it certainly contains all the elements to be one of them.
We can hardly control our own bodies, let alone our lives as a whole, yet we strive for control through logic and free-thinking, constantly reflecting on the “what ifs” that will never be. When emotions get involved, we start dwelling on how frustrating, unfair, and uncontrollable life can be. Brainiac are the epitome of this kind of frustration. They had a tragically unrecognized career marked by obscurity and death in spite of enormous talent, yet they represent the very principle that could break the cycle I just described once and for all: life would be better if we were all robots.
Rooted on territory built by Devo, Suicide, and The Screamers, Brainiac didn’t sound like any of those bands; in fact, they had a characteristic sound while never repeating themselves throughout their short but impeccable career. From the pop leanings of early singles and their debut, Smack Bunny Baby, to the less traditional Bonsai Superstar and the more desperate songwriting heard on Hissing Prigs of Static Couture, each approach was handled with skill and dexterity. Their use of keyboards culminated on their last release, the Electro-Shock for President EP, where we also hear a timbre slightly more somber than the rest of their output.
Brainiac’s appeal wasn’t just the use of Moogs and other synths, the guitar interplay between the late Tim Taylor and Michelle Bodine on their early stuff was quite inventive, and the rhythm section marched in a way that was both mechanical but faulty enough to suggest grooves without being traditionally funky. They may have relied on common instrumentation and forms, but they did so in a way few others bands have achieved. Perhaps this is why they weren’t as big in their time nor has their legend grown in subsequent years; they were, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “…Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Also too good for this world.