1996: The Halo Benders - Don’t Tell Me Now
K Records has always seemed to be blessed with an aura of uncomplicated authenticity. Founded in 1982 by Olympia, Washington’s most quixotic cultural ambassador Calvin Johnson, the label helped lead indie rock to its heyday in the mid to late 90s. Everything about the fiercely independent label — right down to the logo, which was slapdash twee before slapdash twee was A Thing — smacked of DIY wholesomeness that was both unpretentious and endearing. So it’s not surprising that The Halo Benders, one of Johnson’s many pet projects on the label, is responsible for one of the era’s most easily likable albums, 1996’s Don’t Tell Me Now.
A collaborative effort between Johnson and Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch (who’s career was about to hit its pinnacle with Perfect From Now On), the band embodied all the best parts of K Records — and Don’t Tell Me Now pushed all those parts to the fore. The label’s DIY touch underlies much of the the album’s charm. While today lo-fi is nearly always shorthand for “stylized tape fuzz and heavy-handed use of analog sounds,” the lo-fi of this record is understated in a way that has become rare. The songs sound loose and playful; the no-frills recording and production make it seem like you’re listening in on a low-key rehearsal. Tracks like “Halo Bender” and “Planned Obsolescence” shamble along with herky-jerky guitar and languid percussion. Much of the record shares this unguarded breeziness, a slack outlook that seems completely genuine.
Another real appeal comes from the band’s bizarre approach to songwriting — Don’t Tell Me Now is loose and playful by design. After sketching out a song’s structure, Johnson and Martsch would part ways and write lyrics and melodies separately, and rather than pick one, they would use both simultaneously. With Johnson intoning away in his distinctive baritone and Martsch’s adenoidal emoting, each song became a fractured duet with looks that overlapped and clashed. The discrepancy in voices lets you hear each vocal line independently; it also makes the whole operation sound like some deranged back-woods family band led by a retired codger and his teenage son. And if that sounds like an cheap jab, it isn’t. I imagine that’s just the slightly askew outsider sound the two were hoping for.
The trick is particularly effective on songs like “Bombshelter, Pt. 2,” where Johnson drones on about an elaborate plan to muck up the government like a sonorous Ted Kaczynski while his rant is punctuated by Martsch’s earnest crooning. It is simultaneously coolly detached and subtly catchy. Even when both vocalists play up the twee affectations that marked much of K Record’s early releases — on songs like “Flying Carpet” — the approach still completely works.
Overall, the Halo Bender’s reluctance to tighten up their playing and stick to one melody is the record’s major coup. Along with groups like Pavement and early Modest Mouse, the group really perfected transforming loose playing and relaxed energy into effective songwriting, an art that seems rarer and rarer. The current patch of guitar bands basking in the critical limelight — your TV on the Radios, Sleigh Bells, and even your Real Estates — have focus and drive to their songs that gives them a direct immediacy. And that’s great; but sometimes you just want to hear the excitement of a tune that sounds as if it’s held together by chicken wire.
2007: Colleen - Les Ondes Silencieuses
In order to dedicate all her time to figuring out how to make music with her first production software program, Colleen (Cécile Schott) abandoned a perfectly good job as a teacher at a French high school. Just last year, she mastered pottery; this too she abandoned. Her ceramics are very beautiful, like her compositions – both minimalist objects of fragile intricacy with a lot of space at the center. A large part of her musical labor was the painstaking task of recreating her compositions live with acoustic instruments, so the last few years have been understandably spent taking a break and figuring out what to do next musically.
Colleen was bracketed as an electronic artist in the aughts because she used looping pedals and software that blended samples from her own record collection. Her first record was basically an expert collage of her no doubt lovingly curated vinyl collection. I like to think that fans of the itunes genre tag mis-assigned Colleen’s style completely (it was known to happen back then). Her old vinyl record collection perhaps was the unusual musical instrument that made her first album, rather than the invisible computer program that marked her out as an electronic artist.
This is a woman who made a 14 track EP using music boxes (Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique), and spoke of the pleasure she derived from reviving the sounds of the viola da gamba. By Les Ondes Silenceuses, the samples were gone altogether and replaced with acoustic instruments. Even the loops were less evident. “Echoes and Coral” was a track that explored the unusual perfection of struck crystal glasses. Other instruments used on the record were the spinet (a form of harpsichord), classical guitar, and clarinet.
The album has the feel early recorded music – an alternative to classical music in the early twentieth century, and almost as much of an underground obsession as experimental and electronic music for adventurous collectors (the impetus for the founding of the Nonesuch label, in fact). In Colleen’s career electronic music seems to have flowed back out again, to the still waters – Les Ondes Silenceuses – of her most recent record, which explores the sonic possibilities of forgotten acoustic instruments.
There is an Indonesian word for a group of instruments that are tuned to be played together and are rarely played separately. One of Colleen’s songs is called “Gamelan” after this term. Of course I searched the internet expecting to find an exotic, individual instrument crafted from the fine hairs of an Asian breed of rabbit (not precisely, but you get my drift). Les Ondes Silenceuses sounds like it was made for a gamelan. In many ways the album’s compositions are the sum of their instruments – their voices, their possibilities, their melancholy. It will be interesting to see whether Colleen will continue to explore the experimental possibilities of older, acoustic instruments on her next record, or whether she will dust off her electronic tools again. Either way, the result will no doubt sound as if this selection was the final one.
1996: Swans - “How They Suffer”
If you have a chance to piece your skull back together after hearing Swans’ The Seer, this older track from their two-and-a-half-hour 90s masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind (even longer than The Seer) shows them at their most quiet and emotionally suffocating. It was unsettling when I first heard it, but over the years “How They Suffer” has become one of my very favorite songs to ever spring from Michael Gira’s skull. “Suffer” is a stitched together sound collage and sees Swans in one of their most abstract moods; it opens with a drone, shifts to an interview, moves into a gorgeous instrumental bridge, and then closes with a second interview.
The first recording features a man discussing in a very rambling way the issues that he has with his eyes. He stammers and forgets his place, but eventually gets to the point as he matter-of-factly says, “I am what they call… legally blind.” His explanations use medical terms he doesn’t sound like he fully understands, things that he probably knows just from hearing his doctor say it so many times. Yet when he bluntly gets to the point of the issue it resonates with an overwhelming sadness.
The second interview featuring an elderly woman continues in a similar fashion, where she explains her current health situations. She’s trying to eat everyday so that she can get stronger, but says so in a voice that has accepted that it won’t happen. This track’s use of interview recordings is done in such an understated way, and while many parts of Soundtracks get brutally heavy, it’s this whispered quiet moment that always shook me to the core.
1980, 2011: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry - The Return of Pipecock Jackxon
There have existed a gaggle of artists who for much or all of their careers traipsed the shaky tightrope between genius and insanity. Hell, it can be argued that all great artists do this in some regard. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry belongs to that significantly smaller yet still sizeable group who not only made the leap of faith into batshit insanity, but continued to release quality work afterward. Of course, audiences delight in the archetypal image of the crazy-eyed rock star and thus, through romanticization and revisionism, unfocused albums are often elevated to cult classic status. (Is Syd Barrett’s solo career really as remarkable as the psych-rock bloggerati would have us believe?) So, lest we devolve to a torch-wielding mob demanding human sacrifice, it’s important that when we listen to a record like The Return of Pipecock Jackxon we keep in mind that shit-smeared walls do not necessarily equate to high art.
Of course, sometimes they do.
Originally released in 1980 on Black Star Liner, The Return was re-issued in 2011 by Honest Jons Records. While I’m not aware of any difference in sound quality between the two issues, the latter (pictured above and spinning at my side as I type this article) comes packaged with some incredibly insightful liner notes that offer far better historic context than I ever could, explaining in some detail exactly what kind of shit was smeared on the walls of Perry’s backyard studio, Black Ark: “layers upon layers of paint and posters and book pages, a chronological history of Scratch’s mental state,” says photographer Bill Bradford. Quotes like that one and “the sonic index of Perry’s psychic unraveling” – used by liner notes author David Katz to describe the record – might lead one to believe that The Return is a particularly dark album. However, such is not the case.
While there are dashes of frustration and desperation whisked about, most if not all of them are tinctured with a lighter shade of introspective, absurdist humor. Scratch is indeed losing his mind here, but one would be shortsighted to assume that he isn’t fully aware of and embracing that fact. Think about those instances when the world around you seems so totally ass-backward that all you can do is laugh hysterically. That’s what this record sounds like to me.
From Perry’s spontaneous recital of all 26 letters of the alphabet in the epic opener “Bed Jammin” (a conversational dub response to Bob Marley’s “Jamming”?) to the backup vocal refrain of “koo koo” in “Who Killed the Chicken,” the absurdity of it all is acknowledged and thus tangible; lyrical flotsam drifting in a (mostly) smooth sea of psychedelic dub grooves. I say “mostly” because in spite of the bluesy guitar licks and hazy synths, there are some rough patches that welcomingly hark back to the badman vibes of Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. That being said, if the title “Babylon Cookie Jar a Crumble” isn’t enough to put a smile on your face, then Scratch’s cartoonish cackle at the end of that song probably won’t either.
There is much that can be written about this album’s other themes – the intermingling of Jamaican and European cultures, the eternal battles between love/good and hate/evil, and the humble pursuit of idyllic silence — but it is Lee’s ability and determination to find humor in dire circumstances that rings truest to me. Just under a year ago, I saw Scratch perform at B.B. King’s in Manhattan. He dropped many a gem that night (read more here), but without a doubt, the one that best informs how I hear The Return of Pipecock Jackxon is this: “I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke anymore. The only thing I have to keep me happy is craziness.”
1993: Ace of Base - “The Sign”
Basically, Ace of Base had a very obvious mission: to recreate ABBA. Picking a nonsensical name starting with an “A” and having two girls (a blonde and a burnette) and two guys (a pudgy one and a skinny one), the AoB team made their Frankenstein monster as close as possible to the massively successful group of the 70s, probably to reclaim Sweden’s supremacy on the pop charts. However, they didn’t go with the matching jumpsuits or the same sound. Also, the material was another matter entirely.
While ABBA could knock out instantly memorable catchy songs that ranged from dancefloor classics to tearjerkers for the masses, Ace of Base were spotty at best. Their singles “It’s a Beautiful Life” and “Happy Nation” are best left unmentioned. But when they managed to make a good song, it was great one. “The Sign” is a perfect example – the whole thing is a massive hook. The verses are set up with little vocal details that make you pay attention and then there’s the chorus, which doesn’t really explain what “the sign” is, but doesn’t stop you from singing along.
The Ace of Base secret weapon was simple: an electronic calypso beat that is relaxed and groovy at the same time. It’s incredibly effective, totally identifiable in their songs, and helped them make their biggest selling singles. It revitalized the Albert Hammond Sr.-penned “Don’t Turn Around” in such a way that the author himself now plays it with the same beat. And, more recently, it informed two Lady Gaga hits (“Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” and “Alejandro”).
Perhaps AoB put an incredible amount of work into a group that didn’t end up inheriting ABBA’s throne, but they can say something most of their contemporaries can’t: they introduced a sound to pop radio that, to this day, remains unique and completely their own. They became an influence in a world of faceless studio ensembles that plot to take over the world with a simple, annoying sound. In a way, they ended up transcending their time.
1970: Nico - Desertshore
What does it say about a human being when her son tries to sell her leftover methadone at her funeral in order to finance a habit to which she introduced him? The encounter with Nico always has a quality of grimness and astonishment. It was her second solo album, The Marble Index, which announced her true intentions. When it arrived on the scene in 1967 audiences were nonplussed, and despite its slow progress to critical darlinghood, for the most part they have remained so.
Until that point, Nico had been best known for her role in Andy Warhol’s Factory – in particular, as the handpicked frontwoman for The Velvet Underground. Her first LP, Chelsea Girl (1967), was a mostly straightforward chamber-folk piece featuring tracks written by Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. There were a few omens of what was to come, though, in the dissonant, eight-minute experimental centrepiece “It Was A Pleasure Then” – and in Nico’s deep, Germanic, offkey intonation, an acquired taste for most. But the cold austerity, mythological and surrealist lyrics, and harmonium drones of The Marble Index were something alien indeed, particularly as the scungy realism of the Underground waned and hippy utopianism waxed. If Lou Reed’s Berlin was panned as too depressing, what kind of reception was a work like this to find?
Nico was always a little too strange for the strange crew, too much an enemy of her own beauty, too fucked up for fame. Unlike Marianne Faithfull (who wrote her a tribute song), she would never transmute her self-destructive lead into gold, never re-emerge to popular acclaim, never star in slightly off-color film vehicles. But her unjustly neglected later work, in which she experimented with synthesizers and Middle Eastern traditions, continues and extends the veins so deeply mined on the album in question here, Desertshore (1970). Her spectre lingers around the edges of critical sensibility and Id-dregging performance (most recently in Throbbing Gristle’s project to reinterpret the LP in its entirety).
There are artists whose oeuvre, though not devoid of influence, seems somehow to emerge from nowhere – as if they appeared, fully formed, from another civilization. Freud explored the idea of the Unheimliche, the un-home-ly or uncanny, as something closely resembling what we know, but alien enough to give rise to a sense of the deeply uncomfortable, even to fear. Nico’s music embodies this quality, but at the same time she engaged deeply with history, recent and mythological. She was notorious for performing the outlawed anthem of Germany under the Nazis, “Deutschlandlied” (which she dedicated to the notorious German left-revolutionary Andreas Baader), and she also drew upon Wagnerian mythology. But unlike the drug mania and obsession with evil that propelled similar explorations for figures like David Bowie, Nico was neither interested in shock for its own sake, nor concerned with evil as excitement. Her vision explored atrocity as a vital exercise – Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, flung backwards unseeing into the future – without any personal grandiosity. Her own father, Hermann, had sustained head injuries as a soldier, and died as an experimental medical subject in a Nazi concentration camp – and in that contrast we see another of the taut paradoxes which characterize the study of Nico.
An inveterate liar, she had early on stepped away from her identity as Christa Päffgen of Cologne. Desertshore exemplifies the way in which her music speaks of and to trauma; but not in the expected musical fashion, not in clichéd tales of angst or cryptic confessional moments. Rather, Desertshore is both deeply personal and eerily disconnected, closer in spirit to the brutal, beautiful horrors of pre-sanitised European folk tales than to Sylvia Plath or The Smiths. The Marble Index circumscribed its travails within a cold landscape reminiscent of the steppe of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a landscape dominated by the figure of cruel and icy mother, and by one’s own lack. But Desertshore traverses this terrain in order to imply some of the warmth of the sea as well as its impersonal qualities. “Le Petit Chevalier” is sung by her son Ari, Alain Delon’s unacknowledged child, who must have been all of three or four at the time, and “Afraid” reveals a fragile transcendence and melodic sensibility.
These elements perform a contrapunto to the complex dissonance and stony dissociation of “Janitor of Lunacy” or “Abschied.” Nico’s troubled identity as mother and child, her familial experience of her own loss and the loss that she imparted to others, are refracted through its intricacies.
As a title, Desertshore speaks to the liminality of Nico’s life, and of her work. Her father was Yugoslavian while she was born in Budapest, and from Cologne to Paris and on to New York and London, she was an early global citizen – yet always also a forlorn wanderer, a nomad. This is apparent in her music. Continuing from the pattern she laid down on The Marble Index, Desertshore featured harmonium drones prominently, bringing an Indian sensibility to her Nordic roots. Marble Index had been named for Wordsworth; Desertshore was named, perhaps, for William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion:
At entrance Theotormon sits, wearing the threshold hard
With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desert shore
The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money,
That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires
Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth.
The album was produced in a traumatic milieu. Nico’s long-estranged mother Grete had recently died, Ari had been sent away, and, alongside then-partner Philippe Garrel (whom many blamed for her decline), she had begun mainlining heroin. With John Cale at the helm, Nico chose to construct the album in allied keys, moving toward the relative minor as in a traditional German song cycle, while Cale’s instrumentation echoed Mahler and German romanticism. Rolling Stone described it as ‘Gothick’ and referenced H. P. Lovecraft, while the NME’s reviewer called it “one of the most miserable records I’ve ever heard.”
But they had missed the centre of the music; neither purple-prosaic nor schlocky, Desertshore hinted at bottomless depths of angst beneath cool surfaces which gave nothing away. Nico’s evocation of the past was not for the sake of Sturm und Drang pastiche, but in itself created the distance, the quality of being a mask, which her music paradoxically needed in order to operate at a visceral level. As Jean Baudrillard put it, “Nico seemed so beautiful only because her femininity appeared so completely put on… that perfection that belongs to artifice alone. Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex, and it commands the higher price.” The price paid by Nico, and by others around her, would be all too high.