1991: Talk Talk - “Ascension Day”/”After the Flood”
Would you believe that I only recently heard Laughing Stock for the first time? I had, of course, unjustly written Talk Talk off as tawdry 80s electro-rockers, due largely to the greatest hits collection I had stumbled across in my lady’s iTunes library. Zero of the songs on that compilation were from Laughing Stock, and only two (“I Believe in You”, “Desire”) were taken from Spirit of Eden, generally considered to be the band’s other masterwork. You can see how I was misled.
“Ascension Day,” the second track from 1991’s Laughing Stock, is a stunningly tight six-minute song that manages to singlehandedly foreshadow much of the post-rock output of the next couple decades, including, yes, Radiohead’s later career phase (specifically In Rainbows). Lee Harris’ spacious drumming is the song’s backbone — the spirit guide for the band’s warm, textural noodling and frontman Mark Hollis’ charmingly disheveled Peter Gabriel-esque vocals. By the conclusion of “Ascension Day,” the song has split open and become a snarling beast, wide-lensed and feral.
That conclusion is a little confusin’: “Ascension Day” stops abruptly in the middle of a measure — the first time I heard it, I thought I’d gotten a bum copy of the track, but no. The teeth-gritting tension of that song leads abruptly into the beginning of the loping, spacious “After the Flood.” At almost 10 minutes, it is the undoubted centerpiece of Laughing Stock, a gem even amidst so many great tracks. Weird atmospherics abound as Harris rides an unswerving rhythm through snaking organ lines and calm guitar feedback. The melodic themes in “After the Flood” reveal themselves deliberately, laconically — all steady peaks and drugged valleys.
As a swan song, Laughing Stock is one hell of a lasting statement. Rumor has it Hollis turned the recording studio into a den of meditation, complete with incense and candles. And though it sounds kind of Enya-cheesy, you can almost sense the Nag Champa wafting through the headphones. It smells just about perfect as it sounds.
2000, 2007: Shellac, Subtle - “Prayer to God”
For Doseone of Subtle, covering Shellac’s “Prayer to God” was an appropriate way of dealing with feelings about an ex-fiancée who had taken up with someone else while he was on tour. Ending the lives of the two parties involved, as the songs’ lyrics suggest, was not. Writing a new song must have seemed unnecessary when Shellac’s ode to jealous murder already existed.
Because songs about situations usually bear no more than a family resemblance to the intense emotion that gave birth to them, a soundtrack to difficult times seems more comfortable for artists than a fresh stab at greatness. If one were to respond completely insensitively to Doseone’s ‘situation,’ “Prayer to God” is the perfect wounded karaoke number because it isn’t something shiny and new; it’s old, borrowed, and blue. And as well as serving up the requisite jilted lover’s blues, it also turns the air blue with a sweary chorus of “fucking kill him.” Doseone really cranks up the demon/voodoo motor of the song, scrunching up his body and flattening his voice to its most nasal and nasty.
The story behind the performance can be verified in an interview he gave to Pitchfork, which — as they might have said in the olden days — was candid, an understatement in fact: As Doseone tells it, “Prayer to God” was prophetic — when an unusual soundcheck was played (the first time he heard the song), he knew something was up back home. I don’t know whether Steve Albini sold his soul to the devil by the roadside to make this song, or whether it was inspired by a real-life kitchen-sink drama, but whatever conspired to make it, ‘tharr be demons’ now somewhere in the mix. The song is eminently useful for angry people the world over — perhaps if put forward, it would steal the UK Christmas No. 1 from Simon Cowell a second time. Which would really piss Albini off.
1988-92: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Tender Prey, The Good Son, Henry’s Dream
As part of their ongoing project to re-issue The Bad Seeds’ back catalogue, Mute Records has unveiled the next three albums in the series: Tender Prey, The Good Son, and Henry’s Dream. These records document a tremendous period of growth for Nick Cave as a songwriter, and as such they are some of the band’s most wildly and excitingly uneven. The first in the series, 1988’s Tender Prey, is a ragged and hungry beast, frothing at the mouth with the sort of murder and mayhem fans had come to expect of a Nick Cave outing, yet the violence is mitigated now and again by the gentle melancholy that the band had been refining since Kicking Against the Pricks. But no discussion of Tender Prey can truly begin without first addressing the album’s titanic opening track: “The Mercy Seat.”
In certain ways, it’s a perfect marriage of Cave’s noise-punk roots and his growing infatuation with melody. At seven minutes and eighteen seconds, “The Mercy Seat” is a dread monolith: a whirlwind of reverb spiraling around Thomas Wylder’s martial drum beat as a lonely Hammond keyboard tolls a single funeral note. Lyrically, it’s Cave’s masterpiece. Once again, the singer draws on two distinct sets of imagery to create an unsettling musical double-exposure. Cave inhabits the mind of a convicted murderer who, in his fits of mad religious fervor, extols the waiting electric chair as the very throne of judgment. In the process, he calls into question the value system that would send a man to his death in the name of justice and puts his own peculiar spin on the age-old quandary of theodicy and personal agency within a Christian worldview. I could go on dissecting the rhetorical effect of the cyclical rhythms, the hypnotic repetition of the central lyric, the way that the strings seem to swell towards climax without ever finding their limit as the song metastasizes towards its conclusion, but really you should just listen to it yourself.
It would be easy to lose sight of the rest of the album after that, but to The Seeds’ credit, there’s still plenty to love once you dig beneath Tender Prey’s surface. “Deanna” is a staple of the band’s live show, a hilarious send-up of fifties doo-wop about a spree-killing couple (or a mass-murdering young lady and the voice in her head, depending on who you talk to). “Watching Alice” is a somber piano ballad (about voyeurism) more assured in its loveliness than any prior Cave composition. The album’s most unexpected pleasure, however, comes at the very end with “New Morning.” It’s a stripped-down gospel hymn that, thanks to some truly beautiful lyrics and the ramshackle early-morning quality of the band’s backing vocals, stands out as a rare moment of unabashed joy in The Bad Seeds’ catalogue.
Some fans and critics regard Tender Prey as the end of a discreet phase of Nick Cave’s career, the last gasp of the junkie prophet crying out in the wilderness before the singer turned to more tuneful endeavors with The Good Son. When viewed in the context of his entire body of work, however, the album’s Gospel-infused balladry seems like a natural outgrowth of the gothic Americana that had informed The Seed’s prior work. And while “The Ship Song” and “Lucy” may reflect a heart-bearing tenderness almost unheard of up to that point, we can’t forget that The Bad Seeds’ albums had been skewing more and more melodic for the last three releases. And it’s not like The Good Son is a record full of lullabies; even under a breezy acoustic love song like “Foi Na Cruz” there’s something sinister brewing. Cave complicates the soothing beauty with a sense of unease through some very subtle piano work and his own nuanced delivery. The darkness and melodrama of his previous work are fully evident in songs like the title track or “The Weeping Song.” The overall result is an album more cohesive than its predecessor, although lacking Tender Prey’s manic highs.
Of the three albums in this batch, Henry’s Dream feels the most like a new start for Nick Cave. It was the first time The Bad Seeds had recorded apart from Flood, who had engineered all five of their previous efforts. It was their first album with former Triffids bass player Martyn P. Casey (replacing the great Kid Congo Powers) and pianist Conway Savage. But the factor that made Henry’s Dream stand out most starkly from its predecessors was probably the involvement of producer David Briggs. Impressed by his work with Neil Young, The Bad Seeds sought him out to bring the ragged, atonal acoustic album forming in their imaginations to life. In Briggs’s hands, however, their stark acoustic vision became the brashest and most rock-oriented record of the band’s early career, a fact that the band still laments. Putting aside any speculation as to what The Bad Seeds’ idealized vision of Henry’s Dream might sound like in Lucien’s audio library of never-recorded works, the album does seem like the runt of the litter. Cave’s flare for crafting sharp, blood-drenched narrative is keen as ever, as evidenced by songs like “John Finn’s Wife” and the outstanding “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry.” But, except for a few really stand-out tracks (mostly loaded at the front of the album), the music just isn’t as captivating this time around. Whatever its flaws, Henry’s Dream still paved the way for the bolder rock sound that would characterize their follow up, Let Love In, which ranks easily among the finest recordings of Cave’s entire career.
Mute set the bar high with the last batch of reissues, and they’ve remained true to that gold standard. The music is crisper and deeper than ever, and each re-issue comes packaged with a DVD containing a 5.1 surround-sound mix of the album, the b-sides and rarities associated with the particular release, and a segment of Do You Love Me Like I Love You?, a serialized documentary featuring interviews with band members, music experts, and fans relating their memories of The Bad Seeds. My reservations about the documentary remain largely unchanged; it’s a lot of talking heads engaging in, at times, blatant hagiography. See below and judge for yourself:
Henry’s Dream is worth singling out, however. In addition to the b-sides “Blue Bird” and an acoustic rendition of “Jack the Ripper” (which are already available on the band’s triple-disk B-Sides and Rarities collection), the disk includes five truly excellent live recordings that, to the best of my knowledge, are not widely available anywhere else. Even its installment of Do You Love Me… is eye-opening for the light that the band members shine on the battle of wills that raged during the album’s recording. It’s indicative of the loving craftsmanship that goes into each of these releases, and that obvious respect and affection for the source material keeps me eagerly awaiting every new installment.
1967-74: V/A - Psych Bites: Australian Acid Freakrock [Vol.1]
It’s difficult to properly define the term ‘psychedelic.’ Drug use and the social environment that it constructs are fine opening topics themselves, but things become much more complicated when ‘psychedelic’ refers to a genre of music rather than a cultural tradition. The tricky thing about attempting to describe psychedelic music is that, objectively speaking, the genre lacks base standards for inclusion altogether. One can’t explain the music by listing a set of genre-specific instruments, structures, lyrical themes, or production methodologies; rather, the potency of psychedelic music is reliant upon its listener’s familiarity with the form, so any accurate depiction of psychedelia must tether itself to the genre’s inherent and unending fluidity.
That said, this sort of dynamic becomes more problematic than interesting when the time comes to revisit old psychedelic records. Psych-rock, for example, is structurally rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s horrifyingly familiar to those of us who grew up listening to classic rock radio. You’ve heard it all your life — the stuff’s more outdated than psychedelic nowadays. As a result, now might not have been the most advantageous time for Past & Present Records to release a compilation such as Psych Bites: Australian Acid Freakrock.
Although Psych Bites would certainly impress someone who hadn’t heard anything apart from tracks featured on the Blues Brothers OST, this compilation was marketed towards a group of individuals who are, for the most part, quite acquainted with the genre’s American and European counterparts. Many present-day listeners have even immersed themselves in psychedelic music that has grown from and expanded upon the very material listed on the back cover of this compilation. Consequently, this Australian Acid Freakrock isn’t so freaky — just retrospective and uninspiring. Perhaps these sounds were affecting in their own time and context, but what’s clear now is that our parents’ old acid jams just aren’t tripping us anymore.
1978: Wolfgang Riechmann - Wunderbar
In our particular reality, in this particular timeline, we’ll never know how Wolfgang Riechmann’s career would have turned out had he not been stabbed to death in 1978. Wolfgang Riechmann — who was in a band with Neu!’s Michael Rother and Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür, the drummer that Ralph and Florian fucked over and turned into a hippy by being wankers. Wolfgang Riechmann — who was blessed from birth with the greatest name available, ‘Wolfgang’ meaning not ‘a gang of wolves’ but ‘wandering wolf,’ which is awesome. Wolfgang Riechmann — who made this lovely little bit of early synth pop before popping off his mortal coil. Would he have gone to shit in the 80s like all his contemporaries? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not though, which is sad. We can only guess what he would have done, which is what I’ll do in a bit (guess).
Finished just before that tragic stabbing incident in 1978 but released three weeks after — not because he was stabbed but because that was when it was due out (that’s what’s tragic about it, you see?) — Wunderbar (which means literally ‘a wonderful bar,’ like Club Tropicana or any bar located on a beach pretty much, like the one in Lethal Weapon… one of the Lethal Weapon movies [2? Not sure*]) is a very palatable drop of ambienty, poppy, German-y late-70s synthesizer music. It’s enjoyable, it’s playful (that’s maybe why it’s enjoyable), it’s fairly light (weight not luminescence) as far as one can prescribe a weight to sound, and it’s pleasant. And actually, I think pleasant is a really good word to describe it all. And simple. Pleasant and simple. That’s it, lightly fizzing languorous sines with minimal soft bass notes and the occasional airy taste of the one-finger keyboard solo lingering on the nose.
There’s stuff on here that you’ll most probably like if you enjoy late-70s Kraftwerk. In fact, something like the fifth track, “Himmelblau” — if you like Kraftwerk and you don’t like that, then I’d say that was odd and maybe you’re in denial. What I’m saying is it sounds exactly like Kraftwerk. Except the vocal that comes in halfway through that sort of sounds like he’s taking the piss a bit going lalala la la lala la la. Apart from that, it’s just like Kraftwerk.
See? And I also reckon he must have been watching some John Carpenter flicks because “Silberland” is straight-up JC. A heartbeat bassline** with inquisitive mystery synths sliding about the place***. A feeling of impending plot, like something is probably going to happen and it’s probably going to be a bit tense. It’s verging on being tense, y’know? That kind of thing.
This sort of ambient synth pop seems to be experiencing a mini-renaissance at the moment; recently, I was at an Oneohtrix Point Never show, sold out and packed to the gills with people digging the electric seagull soundscapes, so the reissue on Bureau B last year seems like a timely reminder that the Düsseldorf lot totally nailed it in the 70s. I wonder if Riechmann himself would be selling out shows these days had he not been knifed. He might be, but following the template of his contemporaries, he’d probably be doing it as part of a disappointing supergroup reunion à la Harmonia. Or maybe he’d be producing U2 albums. It’s all speculation anyway, but in all likelihood we would have probably got another two decent albums out of him.
Shame, but at least we got this one, and this one is lovely.
* Actually starting to think now that it’s not a Lethal Weapon movie I’m thinking of at all, and maybe it’s one of the FX: The Art of Illusion movies (1 or 2). Or another movie altogether.
** As in a bassline like a heartbeat not the bassline from the bucolic police romance television series Heartbeat starring Nick Berry.
***Although weirdly, Nick Berry is a bit like an inquisitive mystery synth himself in Heartbeat, sliding about the place. Just a thought. Oh god, all this will mean nothing to Americans will it.
1968: Silver Apples - Silver Apples
The Silver Apples were named for the fruit in W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” one of Yeats most fey but beloved efforts. Unsurprisingly perhaps, “Aengus” was taken to the bosom of hippie culture. Donovan sung the verses of the poem to the accompaniment of a mellow acoustic guitar, and more recently Devendra Banhart curated the freak-folk compilation Golden Apples of the Sun. The gold and silver apples are referenced elsewhere, and one mention must go to the 1973 film with the same name as Devendra’s compilation, which was apparently a shocking hippie horror flick that used gratuitous nudity and violence to drive home its point about mother nature’s cruelty.
To my mind then, there is more significance in Silver Apples’ name than the average happened-upon phrase or in-joke that stuck at the first jamming session, something a little more poetically apposite. The band’s songs rarely talk about girlfriends, but they do seem to harp on the divine feminine and mystical marriage – the repetition of words like ‘oscillations’ over some insistent drumming turns a silly, ‘far-out’ phrase into a serious invocation, and a Celtic style voyage to an eternal paradise is mentioned at least once. Silver Apples get away with this because their music has that same loose limbed exuberance Talking Heads could tap into without being mocked (too much). It’s not that the songs should be taken incredibly seriously, but there’s an art to making an ass of oneself, particularly if this display can be justified with the excuse of ‘I was wasted.’ And while drugs quite clearly had a place in the bizarre Silver Apples universe (the band so offended Pan Am executives by strewing the cockpit of a jet with drugs paraphernalia for an album cover shot that Pan Am sued and brought down their record label), Silver Apples appear to have been using drugs in that cute, experimental way. It wasn’t unheard of in their time to actually aim for the blessedness that reputedly only reveals itself to holy fools; think of Bob Dylan, adopting the Christian name of Dylan Thomas as his surname – Thomas who was the ultimate drunken poet lost in flowery ramblings about boyhood.
That’s why it’s not so surprising that Joanna Newsom cites the Silver Apples as one of her favorite party bands. After listening to their 1968 album, I was quick to pin Joanna’s choice on the distinct possibility of the girl’s being as mad as a box of frogs. It seemed to me (and my prejudices) that the doyenne of freak-folk simply couldn’t bear to drink anywhere outside the hip neighborhood of the astral plane. But Newsom was right: Silver Apples are often danceable, in the democratically pilled out way that 90s rave and techno were. It was a real pleasure to hear the air-raid siren noises and pounding beats that are the fixtures of modern techno still flush from their first joyride in Silver Apples’ scrap metal car. Incidentally, Subotnick’s landmark electronic piece, “Silver Apples of the Moon,” which definitely shows early signs of techno, didn’t influence Silver Apples’ choice of name at all. Their eccentric frontman, Simeon, who named his homemade oscillator after himself, got into the early adopters of electronic music much later.
The track “Misty Mountain” was, according to Simeon, their only love song. So despite the “maidens gathering flowers” on “Velvet Cave” and the poetry about flowing hair, the love buzz on songs like “Seagreen Serenades” and “Velvet Cave” is the blissed out, drugged up kind that’s directed at all mankind. In keeping with this, when the buzz evaporates, the comedown is paranoid and evil intentioned. “A Pox on You,” from the Silver Apples’ second album Contact, is one of the most deranged yet catchy break up songs you’ll hear. If Yeats’s ideal love conjured from apple blossom (in a scenario Yeats evidently preferred to the relatively straightforward procedure of asking a girl out) was the kind of woman Silver Apples were channeling when they were in love with humanity, then the anti-ideal of “A Pox on You” is a voodoo doll stuck through with pins, defleshed and dehumanized.
Mostly, though, the humanity and the inhumanity of the brand new sounds Silver Apples drew out of their wind-up radio oscillators went hand in hand in the innocent/merciless way that Philip K. Dick envisaged his childlike androids. Perhaps the best way to introduce the odd, offworld noises made by a cranky instrument like the Simeon was to emphasize that emotion could be felt through them in a particular way – with humor and goodwill and the vicarious pleasures of watching them grow. Simeon has said that his favorite Silver Apples moment was “Oscillations” – the very first song the band ever recorded. The oscillator was so fragile that a cloud passing over could make it go out of tune. It seems that what Simeon saw in his invention, much like Philip K. Dick’s eccentric model maker, was its childlike capriciousness rather than the cold, sophisticated futurism that came to be associated with electronic music in the 80s. That prejudice has since been and gone, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that there are often two genesis stories accounting for something we think we know, and one tends to be a lot more forgiving than the other.