1991: Superchunk - No Pocky For Kitty
Superchunk are the Saint Maria Goretti of indie rock -- so pure and chaste, releasing every record since 1993 though their own label, Merge -- though their super-frenzied punk-pop could have easily made a serious splash in the major leagues. Twin guitars buzz and rumble over bracing, joyous melodies, and Mac McCaughan’s tattered yelping somehow sounds both embittered and encouraging all at once. “Life-affirming,” I guess you’d call it.
No Pocky for Kitty, Superchunk’s first full-length on Merge and last with original drummer Chuck Garrison, was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, on a three-night hiatus from the band’s first nationwide tour. In the liner notes, McCaughan recalls how the engineer shared Chunk’s “insane work ethic” and how he scored the lowest rates at the Chicago Recording Company by booking the 6 PM-6 AM shift. “It’s hard to believe now, but at the time it didn’t seem at all crazy to be going about things that way,” admits guitarist Jim Wilbur, who, in the spring of ‘91, was still recuperating from a semi-serious bronchial infection.
Albini receives no sleeve credit (as per usual), but Pocky is one of his best works; the signature “Albini sound” -- unbuffed mistakes and harsh, massive guitars -- click with the songwriting instead of working against it, like on The Wedding Present’s Seamonsters or PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. These songs are huge. “The Chapel Hill, N.C. quartet writes about mundane, everyday occurrences -- a slack co-worker, a teetering relationship -- and shouts about them from the rooftops,” praised the Chicago Tribune.
Indeed. “Skip Steps One & Three” is about a reckless driver. Or a pot smoker. “Seed Toss” is about a bitchy girlfriend. “That’s the fun of it,” said McCaughan. “The challenge is to take a small thing and make it into something worth talking about, even though it probably wasn’t to begin with.”
Rock, even punk rock, doesn’t sound like this anymore -- raw, vital, unstoppable. Listen to No Pocky for Kitty, then anything by Against Me!. Sounds like music from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
1984: The Egyptian Lover - On the Nile
For a few years, I held down a DJ slot on a free form radio station. While it mostly provided me with an advanced education in music, from time to time I would lure guests into the studio for offbeat interviews. One such guest was the porn juggernaut Ron Jeremy, who was in town making an appearance in the local branch of sex toy chain shop. During the anticipation leading up to the interview, I found myself wondering what I would talk to him about. Admittedly, I am not a connoisseur of his movies. I tried to research him online to prepare, but the only thought that kept going through my head was I wondered what Ron Jeremy smelled like. I started asking friends what they thought his aroma would be, and hypothesis such as baby powder, lube, and Hi Karate aftershave came my way.
That experience provided me with the only time in my life that I ever wondered what a person smelled like until I sat down with this album from Egyptian Lover. Why would listening to his seductive electro beats and staring at his come hither portrait on the album cover trigger the olfactory nerve endings of my mind? With that thought, I closed my eyes and let the beats transport me to the smokey and low-lit backstage area at an Egyptian Lover gig in 1984 where I was greeted by a thick waft of frankincense and myrrh. Pushing my way through an entanglement of scantily clad exotic beauties, I turn a corner to witness The Egyptian Lover himself sitting upon a futuristic throne of solid gold, aviator glasses on, erotically draped with luscious babes in a carnal trance while being fanned by palm frond enhanced women who resembled Princess Leah in Jabba bondage gear. He waves his hand for me to take a seat at his feet without saying a word while the women scatter out of the way. He then says to me in a hushed voice, "Shuggypop, my aroma is a blend of juniper berries, cyprus, and lotus flower oil."
At the recent Tiny Mix Tapes holiday office party, house DJ Monte Rock III threw this album on, and next thing you know, a Svengali-like mind control gripped a room full of usually mild mannered music reviewers who began bump and grinding in a manner reminiscent of MC Hammer's "Pumps and a Bump" video. At the 4:37 mark in "Egypt, Egypt," a sheepish young intern in guy-liner had gotten such a jolt of confidence from the robotic grooves that before anybody knew what was happening, he was on the phone challenging Kimbo Slice to a backyard brawl. This is what this album can do to you.
Egyptian Lover is one of the pioneers of Southern California's electro/hip-hop scene. When this album came out in 1984, LA was considered too soft compared to the gritty New York hip-hop world that is now celebrated in lavish coffee table books. This was before the media crazed East Coast vs. West Coast posturing was used as a marketing tool, and before Eazy E came straight outta Compton with a bravado on roids known as gangsta that put LA on the rap map. While celebrated MC's in New York were producing poetry from the streets, Egyptian Lover seemed more concerned with freakish primal matters, that would make Penthouse Forum blush, delivered over tasty beats to pop and lock to. And I for one am thankful for it.
On the Nile takes the robotic trance of Kraftwerk and mixes in the flavor of the urban American streets. If Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo had more cred, it would have featured Egyptian Lover cuts on their soundtrack. Some of these b-boy beats stretch out upwards of nine minutes, and one song tends to blend into the next with only the minimal vocal tag lines distinguishing the difference to those not paying close enough attention. Most of his kinky in a Prince sort of way vocals are nothing more than a repetition of a lustful desire that are barked by a stud's voice with what appears to be a posse of robots as backup singers. If you are into lyrical prose, Egyptian Lover isn't for you. If you want a feel good boost, then I suggest booking a one-way ticket to Egypt to get your love freak on.
2005: Destroyer - Notorious Lightning and Other Works
Notorious Lightning and Other Works is an EP that features more guitar-oriented recordings of six songs from Destroyer's 2004 release, Your Blues. The recordings are a welcome change for fans who were put off by the synthetic textures of that record, but are dynamic and interesting enough to make this EP worth owning even for listeners who already own and enjoy the originals. Backed by tourmates Frog Eyes, Destroyer's Dan Bejar retains all of the theatricality and obtuse wordplay he's known for, and adds more viscera and emotion to the songs through the addition of Carey Mercer's sinewy, distorted guitarwork and howled vocals. The atmospherics of the original recordings that kept the songs at a distance has been shed, and the new arrangements bristle with immediacy.
Mercer's singing complements Bejar's well, lending a world-weary and ragged tone to the title track's extended coda. The rest of Frog Eyes, billed here as Destroyer Players, also work well with Bejar, particularly the keyboard work of Grayson Walker as heard in the outro of “New Ways of Living.” The contributions of the members of Frog Eyes are what make this record so enjoyable; it feels like a genuine collaboration rather than Bejar telling a group of studio musicians how to play his songs, and because the other musicians bring something new to the table, the recordings have virtues of their own that can be appreciated even outside of the context of their original versions on Your Blues.
The manic intensity of the first four songs slows down and shifts to a more mournful, resigned tone for “Don't Become the Thing You Hated,” which of the songs featured is probably most similar to its Your Blues counterpart. Likewise, things remain subdued for the final track: a stately, elegant version of “Your Blues.”
True to his moniker, it's fitting that with this release Bejar destroyed the notion of the definitive recording in pop music. In the past, the remixing and rerecording of songs had only yielded stale, lifeless results that were never enjoyable in their own right. In contrast, the songs found on Notorious Lightning and Other Works equal if not surpass the originals. Despite that, at just under half an hour, this EP still might be a bit too slight to work as an introduction to Destroyer for new listeners, but for the initiated, Notorious Lightning and Other Works is well worth investigating.
2005: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Pedestrian Pop Hits
I must have been nine or ten the first time I went to a roller skating rink. These adolescent hang-outs were the best things since sleep, and they were also one of the first signs of freedom I experienced. Video games, BMX bikes, giggling girls, and overnight lock-ins were also at the helm of entertainment for my friends and me. And just like now, music was everything. Artists like Prince, J. Geils Band, and Blondie were all over the radio. Each had qualities that were pop-focused, yet their sounds were very foreign to my young ears.
Ariel Pink’s Pedestrian Pop Hits is similar in many respects. The album has a peculiar way of drawing the same types of images in my head as the aforementioned bands did back in those days. However, while Ariel Pink’s music has some of the same nostalgic qualities I admire, he has also found a way to remain incredibly new and original. Amongst the jumble that is Pedestrian Pop Hits, there is something very carefree and reassuring happening. I must admit that I haven’t always felt this in his other releases. Additionally, this mini-album only consists of one 16-minute song, which leaves me hungering for more upon each listen. Perhaps it’s merely the law of diminishing returns presented at its finest.
“Pedestrian Pop Hits” fades in slowly with muddled keyboard noises, jangled guitar improvisations, and effect-laden vocals, which all interplay nicely with one another. Eventually, a flanged bass surfaces to give the song a more focused direction. It remains this way for virtually the entire track, and with only minimal changes taking place, you begin to fall into a trance-like state. Eventually the individual elements of the song drift away and you are left with one cohesive experience. Even near the end of the track, where the psychedelic influences come out a bit stronger, there is still a level of control that keeps things intact.
Quite honestly this is one of the better recordings I have heard in a couple years. It reminds me that as I get older I am drawn to things that have nostalgic qualities, but that I also have a need for progressive explorations. Since I am only able to draw faded images in my head of what those times in the roller skating rinks were actually like, I have to rely on people like Ariel Pink to show me how things used to look and sound. Not many artists can blur the line between pop and avant-garde with the same magical results. It takes a fine craftsmanship to be able to pull this off.
: Paul Simon - The Paul Simon Songbook
It sounds like a can’t-miss proposition: Paul Simon, with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, playing some of his best-known songs. This approach, as with some Unplugged entries and the recent Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, often reacquaints the listener with a song, but it doesn’t completely work here.
This set is somewhat awkward, assumedly because Paul Simon was in an awkward place in 1965. His first record with Art Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., failed to sell, so he moved to England for a new audience. Simon played the London coffeehouse circuit and became a minor sensation, so his label CBS (now Columbia) Records sent him into the studio for a solo release as a quick profit.
Though “The Sound of Silence” was the only signature Simon & Garfunkel song to appear on their debut record, Simon had already written a handful of tracks that would become the duo’s greatest hits. Some of those appear here -- “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “April Come She Will,” “Leaves That Are Green” -- and maybe it’s because they’re comfortingly familiar, but those are the songs on Songbook that work best. It’s alarming to hear these songs without Garfunkel, and it’s alternately rewarding and disheartening to hear Simon take center stage on songs built for two.
“I Am a Rock” benefits most from the solo treatment. The song features Simon banging away on his guitar, which makes the lyrics (“Don’t talk of love/ I’ve heard the word before”) sound angrier than on the version we all know. The Songbook rendition of “The Sound Of Silence” is also a revelation; although Wednesday Morning featured an acoustic version, hearing Simon sing it solo lends the song appropriate intimacy. “Kathy’s Song,” one of Simon’s best works, is the record’s centerpiece, and this arrangement – even more so than the better-known live solo version – makes the song harshly personal. Last line “there but for the grace of you go I” just doesn’t sound right followed by applause.
While some songs benefit from being stripped down, others suffer. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” is even more embarrassing here than on the following year’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Simon’s Dylan impression is uncanny, but the talking-blues parody, timely in 1965, now sounds tired. It’s hard to imagine Simon thinking much of this song today.
Though it doesn’t reflect Paul Simon’s deservedly sterling reputation, The Paul Simon Songbook offers a fascinating glimpse at the singer-songwriter in a moment of artistic uncertainty. For Simon, this was a rare place to be.
2007: Nick Drake [including Joe Boyd interview] - Fruit Tree
The following review includes an interview with Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd.
Since his premature death in 1974, English folk singer Nick Drake has slowly cultivated the kind of following that eluded him in life. Though too shy and introverted to gain commercial success, they are those very qualities that have earned him a devoted following that includes luminaries like Robert Smith (who named The Cure after Drake’s song “Time Has Told Me”), Paul Weller, and Peter Buck, not to mention legions of folk disciples.
Fruit Tree is a re-issue of the 1979 boxset that collected Drake’s discography, Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972). Sanctioned by the Drake Estate, the new edition curiously omits Time Of No Reply, a collection of rare tracks, home recordings, and the last four songs Drake wrote and recorded, originally released with the set, but offers in their place a new 108-page book featuring song-by-song analysis by producer Joe Boyd, engineer John Wood, arranger Robert Kirby, and songwriter/music journalist and friend Robin Frederick, and a bio film, A Skin Too Few, directed by Jeroen Berkvens and featuring interviews with Boyd, Wood, Kirby, Paul Weller, and Drake’s sister Gabrielle.
Fruit Tree, as a whole, suggests taking a fresh look at Nick Drake. Long associated with words like 'pastoral,' 'introverted,' and 'mysterious,' the curious career arc of Drake’s lone three albums prompts other descriptions to be applied: the orchestral mysticism of Five Leaves Left, giving way to the jazz-rock fusion of Bryter Layter, and bleeding into the minimally bleak beauty of Pink Moon suggest an artist searching not only for an appreciative and receptive audience, but also for the most effective methods to convey his songs.
Drake’s outsider art, separated from his folk peers by his distinct roots in American gospel, blues, and R&B, and set aside from more contemporary fans by his quaint Englishness, places him in the category of artists like Daniel Johnston, Roky Erikson, and Elliott Smith, not in musical similarity (not that the late Smith’s acoustic works don’t owe something to Drake’s work, especially Pink Moon), but in those artists' own difficulty in maneuvering the base world of rock ’n’ roll media. Enormously talented and proficient, but far too withdrawn to emotionally deal with the rock ’n’ roll spotlight, the din of the concert-going crowd, and his own worries of irrelevance, Drake was perceived by some of the rock lit crowd as a spoiled, depressed silver-spooner.
Of course, there’s far more to Drake’s music than the 'sad bastard' umbrella is able to cover. The delicate, virginal quality of his voice, never rising above a whisper and inherited from his folk-singing mother (aptly demonstrated by snippets of her work included in the Skin Too Few film), his jazz- and blues-inflected cluster chords, the workmanlike stability of his picking patterns -- they all reveal an artist not concerned with any particular scene, other than the one in his head.
And the lyrics! Always suggesting a man out of step with everything, pleading for “a second grace,” “a place to be,” or mourning a fruit tree that “can never flourish ’til its stock is in the ground.” Or one who couldn’t recognize those around him who tried to be those fruit tree roots: “Know that I love you, know I don’t care/ Know that I see you, know I’m not there.” We find him praying for “warmth and green paper” in the rainy streets under the chiming city clock. Throughout his three albums, Drake uses only the lowliest terms to label himself: a clown, a parasite, a poor boy.
Yet hope and beauty are constant: the sprightly humor of “Hazey Jane II,” the utterly romantic vision of “Northern Sky.” the hard-earned resolution of “The Day is Done.” With a song like “Pink Moon,” Drake manages to somehow encapsulate both the eschatological joy and fear of impending judgment. Feats like this are rare, and their soft accomplishment echoes on in the sounds and tones of Drake’s cult today.
Perhaps it’s best that Time of No Reply has been left out of this definitive version of Fruit Tree. Though fascinating, it’s best to view Nick Drake in light of his three albums. His scarce output only highlights the mystery inherent to Drake’s music. We are left with only them, coherent and complete, and a vision of an artist that remains an enigma to even those closest to them.
The following is a brief interview with Joe Boyd, the man who discovered Nick Drake, managed him under his Witchseason Productions, and produced his first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter.
Nick Drake’s music has a few particular adjectives that seem to follow it: 'magical,' 'mysterious,' 'fragile.' How to do you feel these descriptions fare against your experience with Nick? What words would you like applied to his art, lyrics, and overall working approach? What words would you use to describe his music to someone who has never heard him?
JB: Literate words, complicated and sophisticated musicianship, very English.
You’ve stated that you feel one of the reasons traditionally English-based folk music has had difficulty finding an audience in America is a certain lack of “swing or color” often associated with pop music in America, descended from R&B roots. Yet Nick’s music is awash with elements of jazz, gospel, and blues music, all heavily American in origin. What do you think made an audience so elusive for Nick in his lifetime? How much of the incorporation of these elements came from you and your direction of the rhythm section on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter?
JB: Nick’s music is rhythmically rooted in the Anglo-American pop music/jazz tradition and does not have the handicap of ‘English folkiness’ that for example Richard Thompson has. He failed in his lifetime because a) he didn’t perform live; b) there was no UK radio who would play his records on a regular basis and c) we never got a U.S. deal in his lifetime so he never benefited from the golden age of ‘free-form radio’ where his music might have gained exposure.
It seems in many ways that Nick was his own worst enemy when it came to promotion. His live shows are legendary in their raggedness. Were there any good Nick Drake shows? Did you feel unwillingness on Nick’s part to promote (via live shows, interviews, radio spots) his albums? Did the confrontational tone of many of his lyrics (lines that dealt with his lack of compensation or recognition) ever strike you as odd in relation to his perceived aversion to fame, and his refusal to position himself promotionally? Did you ever feel Nick was deliberately sabotaging himself?
JB: Nick was not averse to fame at all. But he had no ability to talk to an audience and was crushed by gigs where the audience talked through his music. The one great gig was opening for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival hall in November 1969. Nick was just a very shy person who never found a way to reach an audience. I expected the records to create an attentive audience who would shut up and listen to him, but they didn’t.
In recent years, due in large part to the emerging popularity of free-folk artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, bands like the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Vashti Bunyan have all received some well-deserved attention. How do you feel Nick is connected to these artists (other than the formal connections of Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Dave Mattacks)? Did Nick feel any sense of community with these artists, or vice-versa, or did Nick’s illness make it difficult for him to make the connections? Do you think Nick considered himself a 'folkie?'
JB: Nick was definitely not a folkie. He liked some folk music but never spent much time with other musicians except for John Martyn, and that was more due to Beverly Martyn’s mothering instincts for Nick rather than genuine friendship between the two singers. He did bond with musicians like Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks who played on his records, but the comradeship was limited mostly to the studio.
How would you describe John Cale’s contributions to Bryter Layter, and his influence on Nick personally and musically?
JB: John took over two tracks in whirlwind fashion and did a great job. I am not sure whether Nick liked them or not, but everyone else did. That was the beginning and end of it. John went back to New York and I am not aware that he saw Nick again.
John Wood, who produced Pink Moon with Nick, said that he couldn’t listen to the album for years. What do you think of Pink Moon? Being close to Nick, is its stark honesty and nakedness difficult for you to handle at all? Did its rejection of a certain level of production standards feel at all personal to you?
JB: It did take me a while to appreciate Pink Moon since at the time I thought it was commercial suicide. He may well have felt that everyone – me, Kirby, etc – took things a bit too far with Bryter Layter.
How did you feel about Nick’s final sessions? Where you present for any of the sessions? By all accounts the experience was harrowing, yet the trip to Sound Techniques seemed to temporarily cheer him up. What did you think would come of a fourth album, if anything? Did you have any ideas about or for it?
JB: I was there and it was harrowing to see someone who used to record live with an orchestra struggle to sing and play guitar at the same time. I think Nick was gratified to have finished the four songs but I didn’t see him acting cheerful about it.
Lastly, I’d like to ask how you feel about the new Fruit Tree reissue. How involved in the project have you been? Do you feel that the additions to the reissue add anything new to Nick’s legacy? Do you see the “Fruit Tree” presenting a complete idea of who Nick was, or do you feel that there will always be a portion of Nick shrouded in mystery? How important is the mystique of Nick to his music?
JB: I haven’t seen or heard Fruit Tree yet so I can’t comment. But getting the 3 albums together has always been a good idea.