1956: The Louvin Brothers - Knoxville Girl (Traditional)
Murder ballads generally adhere to a strict formula it seems. They explain who the person being murdered is, why they got murdered, and finally how the killer is brought to justice. The most essential part though (other than, y’know… the murder) has got to be the motive, and that is precisely why “Knoxville Girl” is so fucking unsettling. It begins like a love song, with the narrator picking up his sweetheart to go for a stroll, and only a few lines in she’s screaming as he beats her to death with a stick. He doesn’t have any motivation, and our only insight into how he felt about her comes at the end as he wastes away in prison when he says he loved her. It never gets too gory, but a line like “She never spoke another word, I only beat her more, until the ground around me within her blood did flow,” sounds deeply disturbing when sung in the melancholy tone the song is famous for.
Pick any version you like, damn thing is nearly 100 years old so there are quite a lot to choose from. A lot of people go for the Nick Cave version, but for me nothing beats The Louvin Brothers version. These two brothers, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, sing it so well because they depict the murderer in possibly the most unhinged way. They do that by singing it as a sad love song. If you heard their version and didn’t pay attention to any lyrics, it would sound like a broken-hearted ballad for the one that got away. They have the narrator reminisce the beating of a young girl to death, then dragging her bloody corpse by the hair and tossing it into the river as a sad memory of lost love. “Knoxville Girl” is the murder ballad at its absolute best, and this is the definitive version.
2003: The roots of Om
Listening to Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus post-Sleep band Om is like entering a realm where meditation and intensity coexist. The drums play a subtle but never simple blend of gentle pounds and reassured beats, while the bass oscillates between heavy riffing and string caressing pulses. It’s music to nod out and headbang to (and yes, it’s also great for smoking pot).
Still, the origin of the band’s sound is attributed to influences beyond rock, music from far off places preserved for centuries by millennial cultures. It seems that critics visit the “new age and world music” section of the record store to get references to where Om got their stuff. Having said that, here’s two older songs that are far closer to music geekery than ancient spiritual faiths that are the granddaddies to the their first three albums.
Yes’ classic album Fragile closes with one of their best songs, and there’s a fragment of the song where Chris Squier and Bill Bruford, for one brief moment, get their instruments locked in a gentle battle for us to breathe and feel the pulses of our circulatory system. Yes had always dabbled in ethereal realms, but “Heart of the Sunrise” does it with frenetic energy that goes beyond the drum and bass break.
The other is “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” by Pink Floyd. Saucerful of Secrets is a collage of different things, but this song is pure Om, right down to Roger Waters’ vocalizations. It’s right there, the stoner doom style in 1967.
In a way, I like to think of Om’s first three albums as a trilogy. Variations on a Theme presented Om as a continuation to the last phase of Sleep. It’s heavy and repetitive with some hushed tones that hint on Conference of Birds, where things get settled and sets a peaceful mood only to be disturbed by aggressive points. Pilgrimage is the climax, the grand finale, where everything explodes in their own way, things get shorter and there’s more variety. It’s a fitting conclusion to music that cycle and grind in equal measures.
1959: Toni Fisher - “The Big Hurt”
Are effects special? I first encountered “The Big Hurt,” by Toni Fisher, referenced as the earliest use of the flange (phasing) effect – perhaps better known as ‘that sweeping noise,’ originally created by manipulating two simultaneous recordings of the same source. The term comes from ‘flange,’ the rim of the tape reel, which could be held down with a fingertip to create the effect – bringing to mind phalanges, the bones of the digits.
Skeletal technologies, doubled disassociations: it’s no surprise that “The Big Hurt” appeals to dark luminaries (namely Scott Walker and Nick Cave), while the image of Fisher on the cover of the eponymous 1960 LP rejects traditional pop-femininity in a portrait speaking to complex psychodrama. Curiously, the artist was specifically billed as ‘Miss Toni Fisher’ – like the song itself, the very fact that an appeal is made to the concrete known (i.e. gender) undermines the quality of definiteness which is intended, thus opening up a mirrormaze vista of sensibility.
“The Big Hurt,” lyrically, is a recognition of the onset of pain in a romantic loss (“Now it begins”), and its dragged-out eternality (“I wonder when/ Oh when will it end”). And this beginning is set to a discomforting and insistent beguine, over which emerges a labyrinth of shifting tones and key changes, reproducing the dislocated theme of the lyrics: a pre-postmodern house of leaves (the theme of alienated separation would also appear on Fisher’s tracks “West of the Wall,” about lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, and “The Red Sea of Mars”). The echoing sonics add to the sense of refraction, as do sighing strings which threaten to break into a stereotypical major-key pop chorus, yet slide away; and which give a chronologically impossible and eerie sense of pitch-shift as a purposeful strategy. The song both inhabits and refuses the listener’s ear, impossible to get a handle on, yet paradoxically memorable and addictive.
Despite these deflected discursions, the effect is achieved by a brutal brevity; there’s not a moment wasted in “The Big Hurt“‘s 130 seconds, and rather than a verse-chorus structure the tension builds to a single climax, a petite mort in jouissance mode, at the song’s end. To run with Lacan, there is a fundamental lack at its center, but one which is also, impossibly, a fullness of longing. We are somewhere between the glorious melodrama of the 50s, the death pop of the 60s, and the darkest aspect of psychedelia – that latter found in the surreal element of the flange. Del Shannon covered “The Big Hurt,” and like the electronic bleeps in his “Hats Off To Larry” – but in a less vengeful register – the unexpected technologesqueness gives the sense of a double mediation. It’s not that the tune arrives from outer space (as for The Ventures a few years later), but from the shadowy, phonographic past and the unimaginable future (now the present) simultaneously: from the childhood absence of the m/other, and from a posthuman state which is posthuman not from utopia, but from beyond the grave.
1996: Thela - Argentina
Start by imaging the last half of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull” — specifically, the echoing part that ends in a locked groove. Thela’s Argentina is the sound of that locked echo getting picked up and shaped into new forms and directions, filled out with droning microtones and a pulse. Nels Cline once suggested that Argentina “seems like the only logical way to follow all that post-SY, post-Slint music,” and if you’ll allow me to briefly think about music in terms of minor era-based segments, Thela’s sound exists in a tightly packed sliver: it’s the mid-90s, so Harsh 70s Reality is out there; Royal Trux already ground rock music into the dirt one way, and all this post-rock stuff just seems to have abandoned “rock” in favor of stargazing (or lounging, even) — how do we break free and take it elsewhere?
Thela’s music is vaguely identifiable as rock, but only because of the instrumentation; guitarists Dean Roberts and Dion Workman are more likely to wrench out a trail of feedback than anything resembling a riff. Without overtly framing their tracks or becoming predictable (“dude, where are the crescendos?”), the echoing drones and clang of Argentina sculpts a narrow spot touching on the vague, inexpressible moodiness of the Dead C with the clarity of 90s post-rock, all filtered into long, gripping drones. In short: less murk, more open space. (And it kind of rocks in a way, kind of.)
What makes Argentina interesting to me today is that it really does sound like “post-rock,” but in the sense that it’s rock music emptied of itself. The instrumentation is identifiable, yet the rock signifiers have been otherwise deflated, hanging loosely at the sinews of scraping guitars and unsteady percussion. No track titles either, just a tarnished red chair in an empty and unfinished room – a fitting image, perhaps, for the Auckland, NZ-based trio’s second and final album on Ecstatic Peace: recognizable and worn, minimal and oddly claustrophobic in its emptiness. Argentina is an interesting moment where the free- and post- became entwined, hollowing out the mantle of rock into a serenely empty cavern, thick with dust yet never “dry” – it’s a more welcoming entry point than one might think, and a fantastic place to visit whether or not one is acquainted with the likes of Corpus Hermeticum or not. This water isn’t clear, but drink deep.
1989: John Oswald - Plunderphonics
I first saw Girl Talk in 2007, shortly after the release of Night Ripper. Drunken college kids filled the floor and stage of the tiny venue. Hopped up on a continuous stream of Top 40 hooks, they surrounded Greg Gillis, jostling his tiny table of laptops and electronics like rioters trying to tip a police car. Shirts were off. Gillis’s keyboard was covered with saran wrap to protect it from the rain of sweat made airborne from the frantic dancing.
I’m not going to say those those kids owed their good times and undoubtedly massive hangovers to John Oswald, though he certainly predicted them. In 1985, the Canadian composer presented a paper to the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto titled “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.” The paper is short, and sets about making a point that now seems so self-evident as to be unnecessary: he argues “a sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device.”
To our 2012 ears, accustomed to hearing Kanye top the charts by rapping over King Crimson, this sounds plain as day. It’s like someone wrote a paper arguing that you can compose a great pop song on a six-stringed something called a “guitar.” Though, remember, this is 1985. Though artists have been repurposing bits of recordings since the early days of musique concrète, the practice hadn’t spread far beyond the world of hip-hop — even the very high-profile Queen/Vanilla Ice fiasco was still half a decade off.
What makes this more interesting than your run-of-the-mill academic armchairing is the fact Oswald follows up his paper with Plunderphonics, a 24-track album that lays out a vision of the sampler as instrument. Unlike its contemporaries in the world of hip-hop, Plunderphonics doesn’t merely use prerecorded music to backbone a new creative work, something to buttress and build off of. Instead, the manipulation of samples is the focus — nothing new is added, and most tracks have only a single source material. The editing and handling of the samples is the point of creative action.
He doesn’t shy away from his target, either. Right from the start he goes after the King of Pop. Listen to “Dab,” Oswald’s take on Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” It’s mangled, concussive, and nearly twice as long as the original. At first, the song is recognizable, just jumbled as if being played off a severely scratched CD or on a bumpy bus ride. But just as the liner notes claim, “as it progresses the levels of complexity and abstraction increase.” The song essentially shows the various degrees to which a song can be mutated. It leaves you with the question: at what point does deserve the distinction of being a work in its own right.
Elsewhere, Oswald shows the versatility of this type of composition. On “Dont,” Elvis is slowed and stretched until his ghostly croon sounds as if it’s coming from the back of a cave filled with malfunctioning clocks. On “Pretender,” Dolly Parton goes through puberty right on tape, her voice dropping until it would fit into any Lynchian hallucination. The final track, “Rainbow,” works over the Wizard of Oz’s most famous performance into an eerie drone piece that would be right at home on a Caretaker album. Really, the technique and result are unbelievably similar.
Back in 1985, Oswald asked the audiophiles, futurists, and academics in Toronto to “imagine how invigorating a few retrograde Pygmy … chants would sound in the quasi-funk section of your emulator concerto. Or perhaps you would simply like to transfer an octave of hiccups from the stock sound library disk of a Mirage to the spring-loaded tape catapults of your Melotron.” Scrolling through my records now (side note: when will “scrolling” completely overtake “flipping” as the go-to verb in that sentence) it’s like he’s describing half the artists getting coverage here at TMT. He’s describing Co La; he’s describing Eric Copeland; he’s describing Heat Wave and Macintosh Plus. I wonder if he’s ever met James Ferraro? I’m sure they’d find much to talk about.
1968: The Bonniwell Music Machine - The Bonniwell Music Machine
That The Bonniwell Music Machine hadn’t yet been covered by the DeLorean Blog came to me as a huge surprise, for I can think of no other record in my collection that so deeply warrants a contextual analysis based on time. Plus, it’s the work of a great songwriter often overlooked by the masses, which is why whenever someone around me brings up garage rock or garage punk, I almost always namedrop BMM. The irony is that in 1968, they were marketed not for their lo-fi reworking of R&B tropes, but instead as purveyors of a clean, futuristic sound.
The record’s back cover states: “The Bonniwell Music Machine is ideally named, in fact, for they have fallen heir to a treasure chest of electronic techniques pioneered by such ancestors as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and are pushing farther out into the frontiers of studio-produced music. The wild variations of electronic distortions, splicings, time lags, echoes, and dynamics control on this album are the most advanced products of sound engineering, recording and mixing available,” but in listening today, not one of these innovations stands out at such. In fact, they don’t even really stand out at all. Granted, I’m far from the world’s biggest audiophile — actually, my understanding of sound engineering, recording and mixing is novice at best — so the explanation could be that I’m not hearing the “variations in dynamics control” because I’m not 100 percent sure what to listen for from the start, but isn’t it also possible that collectively we’ve become so attuned to these technological tricks that we no longer notice them?
This concept need not be considered metaphysical in nature. Think about the evolution of television from black and white to color, from big screens to flat screens, the way our eyes have become acclimated to an HD picture. What was once new and complex is now simple and commonplace, even taken for granted. Yesterday’s electronic pop is today’s garage rock. In that sense, the steampunk contraption pictured on the front cover isn’t just a music machine… It’s also a time machine, if not a DeLorean then maybe the box in Primer (see: input/output design and the whole “garage” motif).
Appropriately, Sean Bonniwell’s songwriting boasted elements of past, present and future musical styles. Rooted in basic blues chord changes and a folk music background, he adopted the psychedelic melodies de jour while looking ahead to the progressive pomp of the coming years. As the back cover describes, “The compositions [he] has composed are specially suited to the development of electronic enrichments…” With the benefit of hindsight we can estimate that this is because, like many electronically enriched prog rock licks of the ’70s, Bonniwell’s riffs demonstrate that particular combination of technical prowess and panache. This can be heard across the board, but is especially evident on “Double Yellow Line,” with its dueling bass and guitar lines, and “Discrepancy,” which, deconstructed, sounds like two songs laid on top of each other. According to Bonniwell himself, “Discrepancy” is also the only BMM song that wasn’t definitely written, recorded, and arranged to be heard in mono. “Stereo weakens the coagulated force of the band and thus, the intended impact,” he explained. It’s an odd notion, especially considering all the aforementioned sonic enhancements they explored. Again, we return to the idea of temporal context.
I’ve already touched on how the band was promoted to the public in the 1960s and how they’ve been received in later years, but I think it’s also informative to examine how they were received back when they were active. An old article from the Minneapolis Tribune titled “Music Machine Upstages Blues Magoos” details one live performance: “Their musical experience showed … in Latin American and Near Easter overtones in several numbers, and they did some haunting things with an organ and a flute. Higher in pitch and more discordant that most modern music, their sound was startling in the huge arena. Even the wandering semi-bored teeny-boppers stopped wandering to listen.” Not to overextend the Back to the Future metaphor, but I can’t help compare the scene described here to Marty McFly covering “Johnny B. Goode” at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Just imagine it: a bunch of flower-patterned teens are meandering about when suddenly a gang of black-clad, one-gloved weirdoes shows up and starts barking poems while making unidentifiable noises with their instruments. It’s the perfect image.
Sadly, The Music Machine (as they were originally called) disassembled after the release of their debut album, Turn On. The Warner-released follow-up, The Bonniwell Music Machine, features the original lineup on several tracks, including the previously released singles “Double Yellow Line” and “Eagle Never Hunts the Fly,” but is for the most part a collection of songs recorded by varying rosters at different times and places. In fact, it was originally going to be called Odds And Ends, yet somehow this lack of cohesion takes nothing away from the album’s value (another example of temporal context?), and while Turn On might be a more complete work, it’s here that Bonniwell’s best work is collected. For God’s sake, “Eagle Never Hunts the Fly” essentially contains a hardcore breakdown… and it was first released in 1966! Need I say more?