1976: Tom Waits - “Small Change”
Tom Waits’ 70s work tends to get looked down on when compared to his 80s work as the undisputed “king of hobos.” Everybody knows Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs are absolute masterpieces, but there is a tremendous charm to his earlier work, especially on an album like Small Change or the pseudo-live Nighthawks.
That said, the title track of Small Change stands tall with the best work of Waits’ career. During “Small Change,” Waits takes his time, with just Lew Tabackin’s mournful sax in the distance, to describe an unpleasant scene with his unique attention to detail. Small Change, the gangster, has been shot dead in the street, but Waits seems more interested in the aftermath. This street corner is filled with an entire cast of characters, much like later songs such as “Singapore,” but the scope here trumps that.
Surrounding the spot where Small Change got “rained on” we have whores with “eyes like stilettos” and fire hydrants that plead the Fifth Amendment. Waits focuses on the scene without ever getting into the exact details of the murder; the man is dead and there is nothing changing that, he’d rather focus on things like what horse he had circled in his racing form, or who stole his hat, and what product the gypsies are pushing across the street. The song is one of defeat, and we never get the details that we want. The only bone Waits throws us is that “someone will head South until this whole thing cools off,” but honestly you could have assumed that yourself, and it becomes less an offering of information as a bitter inevitability. The details are definitely small, but Waits’ overall scope makes this poem into an epic.
1981: Phew - “Phew”
“Phew” is an expression of relief for narrowly avoiding something. It’s also an apt name for a vocalist who has escaped every close call with mainstream recognition while still being a legendary contributor to avant-garde J-Pop, releasing an album as recently as 2010. Her 1981 debut was recorded in the German studio of Krautrock behemoth producer Conny Plank before his death in 1986, with two members of Can. But besides being in the right place at the right time for these collaborations, Phew’s career doesn’t live up to her cute escape-artist stage name. It’s evident that it took persistence, savvy, and curiosity to have crafted so many albums with collaborators that seem heaven-sent. In the 90s she was a member of a Japanese supergroup Novo Tono which included Seiichi Yamamoto of The Boredoms, and she also worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto at the height of his creativity with Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Any attempt to understand Phew’s debut album as the defining event of her long career is like trying to shrink an exploded universe of creativity back into its Pandora’s box. The album kicks off with the bright statement of “Closed,” and yet it doesn’t fold small enough to be confined here. On the one hand “Closed” is heavily indebted to the Can/Plank influence – the song’s energy bubbles up from underneath with an electronic viscera of miked-up drums and dub energy, something that Plank was known for infusing into krautrock. But then there is the very Japanese statement of those zither-like synths.
Phew is a distinct statement that stands up in its own right, but there is still something cerebral, powerful, and selective that begins here, as if Phew knew she couldn’t miss by working with the right people and aiming for the avant-garde jugular. As a vocalist, Phew is mercurial – both cold and passionate, singing badly to evoke freedom and sweetly to evoke intimacy. I don’t know what her Japanese lyrics mean, but when a specific vocal style is used for some songs, like the lovely, weary piano anomaly of “Dream”, her role is easy to translate. Often Phew is defiant within her echoey darkwave/proto-industrial cavern. But sometimes she’s hoarse and unsure, as if putting a recent dream into words. Most often she carries an incredibly strong debut as an equal partner with her heavy lifting companions, who leave us with another compelling artifact of the brilliant drum and electronic experiments that German music provided in the 70s and 80s.
1982: Blackway - “New Life”
The term Italo Disco is often misleading, throwing an umbrella over two related but distinct continuities in European electronic dance music of the 1980s. One trajectory is populated by groups like La Bionda and Baby’s Gang, danceable pop with a largely electronic palette. The songs are upbeat and high-energy with ABBA-esque singalong choruses and a self-consciously synthetic production style that that evokes the pleasures of a technological age. On the other track are purer, more abstract productions following directly from the application of Kraftwerk-ian techniques to the language of the 12” white label disco edit. While the former group traded on their personality in live TV performances, the latter were generally faceless; shadowy production teams creating utilitarian dance singles for DJs, avoiding the trappings of pop stardom. While these two distinct subgenres sometimes shared personnel, and exerted an unmistakable influence on each other, it was the latter that crossed the Atlantic and influenced a generation of American producers responsible for developing techno and acid house. Adding confusion is the fact that the current Italo revival— typified by Johnny Jewel and the Italians Do It Better label — seems to crib freely from both of these historically distinct movements, balancing pop structure with the minimalism and experimentation of Italo producers like Amin Peck and Mito.
What no one seems to have accomplished thus far is a revival of that pure, abstract side of Italo, before it morphed into new wave and Hi-NRG, before it became ensnared with the high cheese of Eurovision. If anyone reading this cares to take a stab at a true Italo revival, here is an ideal starting point: the 1982 single “New Life” by Blackway, a production team consisting of Moon Records label honcho Stefano Zito along with Carlo Favilli and the great Salvatore Cusato (pictured above) of “Cybernetic Love” fame. Blackway was an ephemeral project, producing only three songs. Adding those three together with the two songs by B.W.H. and the single track by Mr. Master (two subsequent projects involving the same personnel), and you don’t even have enough for a whole album. All of the singles are exceedingly rare, none more so than “New Life,” released in a small pressing in 1982, backed with the similar “Follow Me,” in a generic sleeve that emphasized the faceless utilitarianism of dance music in the age of intelligent machines.
“New Life” is Future Shock in motion, a restlessly propulsive groove with an unmistakably dystopian purview that nonetheless urges progress: “The way is long/ The life is short/ Now is the time/ Go go go.” With a galaxy of weird, low-budget audio tricks, the track variously evokes a rocket launch, a nuclear explosion, a Geiger counter, and a lasergun shootout in a space station. The heavily vocodered vocals are spoke-sung in broken English, like a lot of Italo Disco, but they still manage to be spooky and profound. As a production team, the trio were definitely working on a shoestring budget, with rudimentary versions of recording and sequencing technologies that are now widely available for cheap or free, resulting in an unorthodox mix of high-tech and low-fidelity. Paradoxically, these shortcoming have ensured that the track still sounds fresh today. More than a few contemporary producers (Actress, Laurel Halo, etc.) have returned to this habit of mixing hi- and lo-fi elements together to evoke a whole range of affective (a)temporal sensations. More examples of the increasingly common tendency to fetishize the unintentional “excess” of vintage music. Contemporary resonance aside, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of “New Life,” both as a dance record and as a pristine artifact of a futurist bent in EDM that has continued until today.
2000: Poem Rocket - Psychogeography
Like most music lovers living in the 21st century, I download a lot of albums and a large percentage of those are by artists I’m not familiar with. I get my recommendations from blogs, reviews, from friends, links people post on Twitter, and even from TMT. Still, I have no idea how I came across Psychogeography, but I’m glad I did.
The sound Poem Rocket practices is not far removed from that of noise rock bands like Swervedriver, Band of Susans, or Throwing Muses. Like most good bands – including the ones just mentioned – Poem Rocket sound all their own with only hints of the brand of force, beauty, and cacophony displayed by their predecessors and contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, they hailed from NYC and were formed in the early 90s by Michael Peters and Sandra Gardner (who are now married and have a child together); as mentioned, their music reflected their time and place of formation without feeling dated, carrying it into the 00s.
Psychogeography is the band’s second album and it’s an ambitious effort – a concept long player based on theorist Guy Debord’s idea of the influence of surroundings, both natural and man-built, on a person. Even more ambitious is the music contained within. The sound is intricate, grating, and layered, serving as a vehicle for some incredibly melodic songs that defy outlandish choruses but remain catchy, thanks in no small part to the male/female vocal counterpoints reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s “Kotton Krown” if that song formed a band and wanted a record deal. To top it all up, Poem Rocket liked to make challenging arrangements without sounding indulgent, as heard on album opener “Dirigible,” while others like “Intermission” are more straight forward.
This is a fantastic album made by a great band that most people don’t know but remains alive on the internet, ready to be discovered by the right person. That is, if file-sharing isn’t made illegal in the near future.
2007: BARR - Summary
BARR is the moniker for the spoken word work of multi-disciplinary artist Brendan Fowler, who started his career playing high energy spoken-word punk shows back in 2001. Since then, he’s kept busy co-running Doggpony Records, co-editing Artist Network Program Quarterly (a free arts magazine), playing with two other bands (New England Roses, Car Clutch), and most recently displaying object-based art exhibitions at galleries around the U.S. BARR hasn’t put out an album since 2007’s Summary, a record overlooked when it came out on the now defunct experimental Kill Rock Stars sub-label 5 Rue Christine.
Fowler’s a strange character primarily because of his impassioned vocal delivery. This style was compared too loosely to hip hop artists in the handful of reviews after Summary was released. With Fowler’s continued participation in the DIY art gallery scene, the comparison doesn’t make much sense. A spoken-word provocateur like Karen Finley might be a better fit for discussing BARR’s work.
Lyrically, Summary strives to be viscerally emotional and perplexingly intellectual at the same time. He weaves meta-commentaries on capital-lettered Art/Form/Truth seamlessly together with sparse but intimate confessions (“I just want to hold someone”). Vague circular philosophical logic (or pseudo-philosophical if you like) about making art is contrasted with highly specific personal narratives on abuse, cheating, depression, love, etc. (“Complete Consumption of Us Both,” “Was I Are You,” “Untitled,” “Half of Two Times Two”).
I remember listening to the album fairly often in 2007. Most of the reviews attacked the record for being too “meta” and self-referential. I think that’s the point! In his missteps and rootless explorations into his own art, Fowler projects the vulnerability of overindulgent self-skepticism. Whether you like that kind of thing seems to me a matter of personal taste.
“The Song is The Single” acts dually as a criticism of pop songs and as a criticism of itself. But the finale “Context Ender” presents the most cohesive message in Summary’s sprawling art philosophy. This message: context matters. In an interview, Fowler claimed the track was his favorite because of its musicality. “It’s a song about Pitchfork. I kind of figured they’d trash the record because they actively don’t like me. They’re immature — this much we know. I’m not taking away from their cultural thing — but you can!” That seems like a pretty fitting message to close off a record that’s simultaneously inward and outward looking – carefully skeptical of its own value and freely dissecting the way art is produced and consumed. Whether or not you find it pretentious and overreaching or intelligent and intimate is still subject to the thesis. Context matters.
2007: Grass Widow Demo
I own a lot of handmade CD-Rs. Between playing, attending, and fostering shows in the various small towns I grew up in, I managed to amass a healthy collection of CD-Rs from various traveling bands that rivals my regular CD collection from the same time. Even if they’re god awful (a lot of them are), I can’t bear to get rid of the discs because I know someone spent their time drawing, cutting, stapling, sewing, and assembling each one. I’m a frequent mover, and these artifacts have become a sort of thing I often bear in a cardboard box, somewhere in a closet.
While searching the other day through these varying CDs (most notably detailed in various colors of Sharpie) I stumbled upon Grass Widow’s demo from their first tour from the summer of 2007. They did this tour almost two years before having a proper album released on Captured Tracks. I remember one specific detail from the show: turning to my friend as Grass Widow ended a song and saying within earshot of the members of the opening band (some ironic AC/DC kind of band that played every local show), “I wish there were more bands like this here! Bands here suck!” Things got awkward, but in a way I was really happy to express that discontentment forwardly.
Since then I have moved on to bigger cities, finding that I am just not meant for the small/mid size town. Bands no longer have CD-R’s at most shows I attend; if it’s not an actual record or pressed CD, the tape is the new CD-R (annotate to format debate here). It might be that people are trying to put a better foot forward in presenting a boutique-ready item. This is speculative, but you never know – the CD-R might come back around.
“Why keep all these CD-Rs?” one might ask. “Are you going to save them for 15-20 years and then sell them on eBay? Is this your plan for paying off your student loans?” Nope. Believe it or not, some of these so called “demos” don’t sound too bad. One of my favorite punk albums is in this collection. The Grass Widow demo is one of these that I enjoy, it’s more or less their first album but with a much more personal appeal and less compression. Maybe someday when the early-aught nostalgia wave hits I’ll sell some of my collection to someone who might enjoy them.