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?
1995: Pink Industry - New Naked Technology
Putting aside the machine/human merging theories, one intuitive explanation for our embrace of the early 80s era of electronic impressionism is that many musicians making electronic music these days emerged out of that womb and are retreating into nostalgia as their third decade approaches (or disappears).
But for a compilation of their 80s electronica that is musically fuzzy around the edges, Pink Industry’s New Naked Technology deals with pain rather than some sort of womblike pleasure. You don’t have to listen to many of the lyrics to figure out that this is an S&M album from the point of view of the masochist. It makes me wonder if our nostalgia for this era is a little misguided. Are our musical memories as self-centred as all children’s are? We want to know that everything was ‘Okay’ when we were brought into the world; so 80s electronic music is often wrapped in a veil of mystic sentimentality.
That makes it difficult to truly measure the worth of the 80s output of Pink Industry. Part of me finds it easy to get lost in the seven veils of synths, but I also wonder if I’m reveling in a sound that I only understand through the lens of nostalgia. Rather than vibing on the seediness as Nite Jewel might do, this really is seedy. The murky keyboards and industrial beats are not present because we liked the sound of them, but because Pink Industry seemed to be advertising themselves as frequenters of ugly decadent goth scenes.
Then along comes a song like “What I Wouldn’t Give”, a bleak, yet comforting mantra painted in obscured woodwind sounds and other textures pleasing to the this-wave/that-wave inclined ear. “That’s more like it,” you think, lulled by its similarity to the sophisticated nostalgia of today. The presence of these familiar signifiers of detachment and chill makes Jayne Casey’s awkwardly expressed anguish fade into the amniotic, soothing background.
Pink Industry was a big departure in sound from Jayne Casey’s earlier punkier bands – Pink Military and Big in Japan – and the decision to make a veiled, shapeless sort of music speaks volumes. At the heart of the album is a sense of the disintegration of the will – the dissolution of personality that occurs when we place ourselves in someone else’s power, or succumb to addiction. It’s also one of those 80s albums that seemed to be made for the velvety speakers of the future, optimistically looking to technology to enhance the intimacy between the listener and musician. So it ends up being another one of those not brilliant, but oddly compelling albums that our past underground scenes have left us for posterity. But whatever Casey is intimately confessing about those heady nights, it’s much more like the zitty, grainy 80s of the past than the pleasant soft-focus 80s of the present.
1988: Steve Reich - Different Trains
Dan Deacon’s recent album America ended with the lengthy title suite, reportedly inspired by his experiences travelling cross country on trains. Back in the late 80s Steve Reich also drew inspiration from cross country trips on trains, to create a fascinating piece of music constructed mainly from samples of people speaking. The original version, done in 1988, featured The Kronos Quartet playing along with the sampled voices.
The piece is often described as having been inspired by Reich’s youth, traveling the long cross country distance between his two separated parents, and the realization that during the same period Jewish kids his own age were being shipped in Holocaust trains. It is split into three sections that represent Pre-war America, war-torn Europe, and finally a post-war Earth. It’s a heavy concept, but one that Reich delivers on with a tremendous amount of care and innovation when you consider his use of sampling. Different Trains went on to win a Grammy, though I doubt anyone, especially Reich, really cared about that.
1989 - 2012: Suzanne Langille & Loren Connors - “Blue Ghost Blues” (“Haunted House”)
By any measure, I’m no blues scholar. I’m no connoisseur of the blues. When I first picked up a guitar, my dad taught me the scales. It’s only been in the last month or two, about two decades later, that I’ve started running through them again. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about the blues. But I can’t shake this song, “Haunted House,” and its recent transformation(s) by Suzanne Langille and Loren Connors.
The available information surrounding “Haunted House” is scant. The song is, at least in part, an amalgam of verses from “Blue Ghost Blues” (1927, 1938) and “Lonesome Ghost Blues” (1927), both songs pre-dating “Haunted House” by decades. Regarding the biography of the songwriter, Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, I kindly direct you elsewhere. Without going too far off course, suffice it to say that his influence is still felt. “[His] early recordings are the first guitar recordings that display a single-note soloing style with use of string bending and vibrato,” that is, he originated the guitar solo.
One can make guesses as to the origins of the content of songs, but sometimes one is left, simply, to drift through them, and know the song as it gives itself – again and again, listen after listen. In my opinion, “Haunted House,” in the hands of Langille and Connors, is a gorgeous, and yes, haunting song in all of its recorded iterations. In an email, Suzanne Langille wrote, “I think Lonnie Johnson’s ‘Blue Ghost Blues’ is the greatest love song ever written. It’s about a love – and a need to protect – that transcends death. I believe in it.” She continued, “Loren introduced me to the song, which had been introduced to him by our good friend Robert Crotty, a blues musician from Hamden who passed away not too long ago. It was the truest thing I had ever heard. No other song comes close.” She concluded, “When our band was first coming together, after a couple performances of it, we decided to call our band Haunted House and the song ‘Blue Ghost Blues.’”
Although three of the four recordings of “Haunted House” are performed by the full band, the very first and most “simple” rendition is by Langille and Connors alone, together, at the end of Connor’s 1989 album In Pittsburgh. It may take a few listens to hear the ways in which the voice and guitar sing to each other. The song is slow like a crawl, and is as lonesome as it is lovely. One guitar plays a simple rhythm throughout, as though creating a space in which Langille and Connors can inhabit and explore, both as ghosts, both as lovers. There are moments in this rendition more convincing, and moving, than in most songs I’ve heard: the drawl of time, I’ve been in this haunted house/ six long months today; the solo after the black cat’s sympathy; when Langille sings the grip of the ghost around her, and the spoken words of the dead lover, the whispered “I love you”; the way Connor’s guitar drops, and drops, throughout the song until, by the end, it’s nothing but a pick scratching against the strings.
The next recording of “Haunted House” (hereafter, “Blue Ghost Blues”) would come one decade later, in 1999, on Haunted House’s live album, Up In Flames. The crawl had been stretched out from 6 and a half minutes to 23 minutes. The voice isn’t first heard until well after the eight-minute mark; in the meantime, throughout the opening minutes (if the voice’s entrance can be said to initiate the song) were experimental electric guitar improvisations typical of Connor’s work during the 90’s: minor and foreboding. At the nine-minute mark, nearly everything drops out but Langille’s voice. An underlying, low, discordant, and distorted thump carries it forward, and Connor’s guitar wanders, strangely, around the words being spoken and sung. More forcefully than before, Langille almost yells that the “blue ghost got [her] house surrounded/and [she] can’t get away,” and that’s exactly what this version sounds like: the storm surrounding the house, the house surrounding the storm, the ghost and the lover intertwining in the terror and promise of their mutual alienation and affection. This time around, Connor’s guitar drops into a fury of noise, and the song is carried out, held captive, within it.
The next year, Haunted House would release an EP (collected on Night Through) containing a second live recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” Although it is much shorter than the version on Up In Flames, it is nonetheless quite similar, only distinguishing itself in intensity: between loud and quiet, between fury and silence, between body and specter. The house-shape is more clearly articulated in the almost empty space Langille’s voice inhabits, and Connor’s guitar soars and swirls around the body, bringing to mind Mr. Lockwood’s encounter in Wuthering Heights: “I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’”
In 2011, over two decades after the first recording, Haunted House released Blue Ghost Blues, containing their fourth, and latest, recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” If I may let my own voice fade away for a bit so that you might finally listen for yourself…
Suzanne concluded her email: “We did yet another version and vibe of it at the Haunted House performance at Roulette this year. I don’t know if the recording came out okay. I’ll find out this weekend.”