1984: Thomas Dolby - The Flat Earth
Thomas Dolby was nicknamed after the Dolby noise reduction technology, and it stuck throughout his career as the boffin of 80s MTV electronic pop. His aesthetic revolved around fantastical iterations of technology past and present: he named songs about blimps, wind-power, and submarines. In the early days he wore mad scientist outfits on stage, and now favors WWII style goggles and trench-coats. In an interview about electronic music (along with a young, New Wave Trent Reznor), Dolby suggested that it was not that computers were producing automated, soulless music, the issue was that electronic music was only as good as the people who programmed it. Like Kate Bush, he seemed to place himself at the centre of an imaginative fantasy – just like any traditional classical composer, only with an expanded paint-box of electronic tools. Similarly to early Japanese pioneers The Yellow Magic Orchestra (who aimed to make music less minimal than Europeans like Kraftwerk), his attitude towards electronic experimentation appears to have been all about exuberance.
Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth, is where all his ideas came together most coherently. On the earlier The Golden Age of Wireless he was channeling a more straightforward version of new wave pop – just listen to “Europa and the Pirate Twins” with its “Blue Monday” style drum pattern (The Golden Age of Wireless was released one year before “Blue Monday” in 1982). On The Flat Earth he ventured much more wholeheartedly into his own orchestral synth-pop territory, though the opener “Dissidents” is a typical 1980s vision of life in a repressive State, using a kind of New Wave funk reminiscent of Talking Heads or Bowie to evoke restless paranoia. It’s an anachronistic intro to an album full of sweeping songs that are mostly unlike this track. One exception is the single “Hyperactive,” in which Dolby wore spectacles and white clothing and pranced around with televisions superimposed on his head, playing up once again to his hip square image. (Dolby’s discussion with George Clinton over a funk track presumably produced between the two of them is also worth checking out, if only for the bit where they discuss the metaphysics of the cube over, we’ll say, tea….)
If pop-purist John Maus would turn up the volume on his vocals his synths would sound a lot like Dolby’s, who never seemed torn between his ability to write a good melody and his love of the diversity of keyboards. Although at times Dolby fell over the edge of these flat, enormous worlds he’d created, and arguably – like Kate Bush - suffered from the excess of his enthusiasm, this curiosity and megalomania was also the thing that helped him demonstrate all the possibilities of progress and regress inherent in electronic music. By expressing nostalgia and fascination about science through the medium of pop music Dolby encouraged the exuberance of all the present day keyboard mystics – all the kids who would inevitably see so-called shiny ‘progress’ one day in the fuzzier light of memory, sentimentality and the like.
2003: Double Leopards - Halve Maen
Despite its’ relatively young age, Halve Maen is an antique. While many of their peers were obsessed with destruction and ear piercing dynamic shifts, Double Leopards were more meditative in their approach to noise music. The group’s best and most sprawling release unfolds with equal amounts of menace and splendor. The hollow recording quality makes it feel both ancient and secretive – a basement recording never meant for anyone except those who recorded it.
Murky and brooding across 75 minutes, the best moments occur when the group let you peer inside their sound momentarily. Halve Maen dwells on decay. The rhythmic pulse of the music is slowly shed or revealed under the surrounding viscera. A collaborative effort between four artists who were distinctly different in their own right, the album moves in ways that never seem predetermined or obvious.
“Hemisphere In Your Hair” is the album centerpiece and standout track. Covering the entire second side, the 20-minute cyclical drone is minimal but never dull, and always shifting. In “Druid Spectre” detuned piano, guitar, and drums fight for superiority, while the final two part suite “The Secret Correspondence” finds the group throwing everything they have at the listener until the only thing left is the human voice.
Double Leopards were lumped in an umbrella genre whose related acts often took pride in being overly prolific. Too often great albums were lost in the shuffle or never found wide release. Halve Maen is an exception that was given a wide CD reissue in 2005 and can still be found. Patient listeners who locate this relic should dust it off and give it a chance.
1995: Campfire Girls - Mood Enhancer EP
An old classmate of mine recently got a job at with a CD manufacturer. His parents said, “Will those still be around in five years?” Vinyl sales are improving, but CDs probably won’t bounce back. I’m not terribly concerned, though; I prefer buying used CDs anyway. It’s actually a pastime of mine. Shuffling through boxes of crusty old cases turns into an archaeological adventure, a search for artifacts and mementos left by generations long past.
I found Campfire Girls’s Mood Enhancer EP in a Lower Manhattan record shop. I think it was Generation Records, I’m not sure, but I remember finding that album quite clearly. The case was cracked and gold embossed letters directed, “For Promotional Use Only.” You wish.
The album art, however, was the clincher — a naïve, stick figure drawing of a 3-piece rock band. It was childish, amateur, and absolutely awful. I had to buy it. The music on the album sounded just like the cover. It was nothing exceptional for mid-90s alt rock, but for some reason it sounded so much more close and intimate than most music of the period. It felt as if I had discovered the magic lamp, and this was my genie.
I always considered Mood Enhancer a great addition to my collection, but I still haven’t ripped the album on to my computer. I’ve never felt compelled to hear it on my iPod or in any digital format (it’s your choice if you want to watch the youtube video). In my mind the album’s appeal has little to do with the actual music. I like it because I found something singular and unique to my personality amongst those endless stacks of jewel cases. I may have never seen or heard Mood Enhancer if I hadn’t decided to buy it that day, but because I did it’s mine. Not just the physical product but also that feeling — the great joy of discovery.
Walk into a record store, sort through the used CDs, and leave carrying the right one. Not the best one — the RIGHT one.
1997: Lifter Puller - “Nassau Coliseum”
Musically, Lifter Puller is a different beast than Craig Finn’s current band The Hold Steady. The late 90s Minneapolis alternative rock band channels new wave, art-punk, and early hardcore, contrasting with the classic-rock-influenced masturbatory bar band antics of the Hold Steady. I love both bands but Lifter Puller won me over when I first heard “Nassau Coliseum,” off their second album Half Dead and Dynamite. It finds them operating in a similar, if not darker, style to The Hold Steady. After the opening bass notes eerily creep in, a combo of dissonant staccato minor chord stabs while the band’s hip-hop-indebted drums complete the rhythm section. After a while, the vocals start up – a six minute stretch of half-sung adolescent nostalgia, seedy youths, police violence, geographic namedrops, and explicit come-ons. There might be less explicit Christianity here, but there’s still a familiar theme of troubled youths trying to find redemption in sprawling cinematic narratives.
Describing the back story to “Nassau Coliseum” in an old interview, Finn states: “In 1991, I went to a Grateful Dead show at Nassau Coliseum. Supposedly, it was the biggest drug bust in Grateful Dead history.” He avoids any mention of the girl at the song’s core. The first verse introduces her and the narrator as two young drunks fooling around on a porch swing. After a drug-referencing verse, the heart of the story unfolds with a flashback to the concert at the Coliseum. The girl is there with the narrator. An unlicensed beer vendor gets busted. A hippie girl selling t-shirts gets handcuffed and beaten. Once we hear that the girl from the first verse has left him, the narrator even admits to being angrily swept up in the spectacle of the hippie t-shirt vendor getting beaten (“I don’t regret it/ that I got some kicks in”).
Starting with the line “Every hippie that goes home bloody feels like a martyr back in the city,” the last verse leads to a triumphant close. After listing thirteen cities, states, and countries, Finn shouts “I wanna fuck you/ I wanna fuck you/ out on Long Island.” Nassau Coliseum is located in Long Island if you didn’t already know that.
It’s this final verse that distinguishes Craig Finn as one of America’s great lyricists. At its shallowest surface, the song ends up being about wanting to get laid by an ex at the same place where Finn’s narrator had a poignant experience. At its deepest reaches though, like all great Lifter Puller/Hold Steady narratives, the song tries to string together many of the messy loose ends that seem tethered to youth – pain, violence, music, love, drugs, alcohol, sex. There’s a catharsis in that final line that reaches down into the depths of what it means to be young and making questionable decisions. The song is one of many to accomplish this feat in Lifter Puller’s vastly underrated catalog, a body of work that I highly recommend you take some time to explore.
1970-73: Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf und Florian
Two years ago Kraftwerk reissued their back catalog, Pitchfork awarded it Best New Reissue, and there was much rejoicing. But three albums from the band’s discography were mysteriously absent. In fact, Kraftwerk considers their catalogue to begin with 1974’s masterwork Autobahn and have disowned the recordings that preceded it. Not only have these LPs never been reissued, Kraftwerk hasn’t even touched the material since 1975. So these things must be complete shit right?
Wrong. While Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian don’t mesh well with um… anything else the band has done, they are all great records in their own right. If nothing else, they show a time before Kraftwerk presented themselves as futuristic robo-musicians and weren’t afraid to play physical instruments, actually perform at their shows, or show themselves at all for that matter.
Krafwerk hasn’t aged as gracefully as its two companion records, but its flute and organ workouts still stack up favorably against other early krautrock LPs and moments of brilliant distorted violin make it well worth a listen. The real reason to hunt down these albums is the extended flute-synth trance of Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian. It’s pretty damn amazing to hear the transition from hippie jam band to a precisely programed computer ensemble that takes place over these records, and many of the resulting tracks (the hauntingly beautiful flute exhibition “Tonbirge,” the propulsive but soothing “KlingKlang,” and the bubbly synth piece “Elektrisches Roulette”) are as strong as anything off Kraftwerk’s better known LPs. It’s a shame they have chosen to hide these records, but I guess it makes sense in the end. Just look at that fucking picture up there. Who wouldn’t want to forget that?
1974-1995: The Reverend Charlie Jackson - You Got to Move: Live Recordings Vol. 1
While the Rev. Charlie Jackson (1932-2006) is rightly considered, along with Elder Utah Smith, one of the primary guitar-evangelist figures in American gospel music, wading into the waters of his work is an all-encompassing proposition. The Louisiana-based Jackson was known for “being able to play his guitar like a drum,” turning down the treble and ramping up the bass in a chunky, rhythmic fashion approaching raga-like hypnosis. Visually, he’d do things like play the instrument behind his head (a sight to imagine in a dimly-lit church), stomping along with a reverent congregation’s claps and sways and spinning personal tales of struggle and salvation. Though it’s hard to imagine this music outside the sanctified realm, a handful of singles and EPs were recorded and released commercially on the Booker label and his own Jackson imprint in the 1970s – these were collected on the 2003 Case Quarter compilation God’s Got It – The Legendary Booker and Jackson Singles. But Jackson recorded many of his sermons on cassette tape and enough of these have survived since his passing that an illuminating series of live recordings is now underway, curated by musicologist and writer Adam Lore on his 50 Miles of Elbow Room imprint. If the first volume is any indication, these will be handsome issues indeed, housed in sturdy jackets with informative booklets and pressed on high-quality vinyl.
Room acoustics and tape hiss give the already-raw Jackson an extra air of immediacy on the opening suite, “What a Time/Morning Train,” recorded in 1974. Shuffling rhythm, syrupy tremolo and dusty slide are wrapped in tape phasing and Jackson’s vocals maintain a gravelly distance as part of a sonic bellows. The Reverend grew up in Mississippi and played the blues as a teenager, so an electrified delta isn’t far from his sacred music – that said, there’s a tumbling whorl that envelops “Morning Train,” something quite far from stark and deliberate secularity. Low, motoring taps and harp-like whine unfurl from the congregation’s ritual movement, making this performance of the gospel standard a rendition for the ages. Though after two strokes it apparently became very hard for him to enunciate (“letting the guitar do the preaching”), one wouldn’t know it from the mid-1990s rendition of “I Read My Letter All Night,” his quavering tenor filling space around nuanced, biting strings, tambourine and a responsive congregation. Jackson accompanies his wife Laura Davis Jackson in a 1982 performance of “May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me/Serving the Lord” that, while perhaps the “straightest” music here, is still powerful in its exploration of masculine-feminine tension. Closing the record is a delicate, hushed, and almost private window on Jackson’s prayer, the unaccompanied “When I’ve done the Best I Can, I Want My Crown.” Hopefully, more volumes of live Rev. Charlie Jackson are forthcoming in short order because this is absolutely wonderful music.