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.”
Deep Purple were so much more than “Smoke on the Water.” They were a hard rock band with an organ that often was heavier than the guitar, they incorporated classical music motifs while singing about racing cars in space, and their drummer owed more to Buddy Rich than anyone else. They were so much of their time that, in theory, they should sound like the most dated band in the world. This is not the case at all.
The genius of Deep Purple relies on their pomposity, although not in the way most people have assumed. Yes, they were overblown and quite pretentious; but what makes them amazing is that they were all that while remaining true to rock n’ roll in terms of excitement. They could make a ten minute song sound as incendiary as a two and a half minute punk song.
Take something like the live version of “Space Truckin’.” It’s filled with complicated passages and arrangements but it’s never less than a bulldozer blazing down the highway. They used their musicianship to make music of the most intense order. Stretching the song past ten minutes, it eventually seem like the Earth is being ripped in half while you keep headbanging.
It’s the essence of metal: challenging music played in a brutal way that makes your body react. That’s why they, along with Black Sabbath, are the undisputed fathers of the form. Deep Purple went a step ahead and made low cultured baroque music as exciting as the most sophisticated and avant garde styles in rock, and they still feel timeless nowadays.
Virginia Astley was born into a musical family, the daughter of a commercial composer who had written the memorable theme songs to British television shows The Saint and Dangerman. She began studying piano at the age of six, and flute at the age of 14. As a young music school student, she joined post-punk group Victims of Pleasure as keyboardist, and performed as session player on more than a few albums of the period. As a solo artist, she contributed background music to the epochal Les Disques Du Crépuscule compilation The Fruit Of The Original Sin. She eventually formed her own group, The Ravishing Beauties, who were tapped for a highly prized opening slot for The Teardrop Explodes.
Astley’s first solo release was a beguilingly strange 10” EP entitled A Bao A Qu (named in tribute to a mythical creature invented by Borges), released on the tiny Why Fi imprint in 1982. Songs such as “We Will Meet Them Again” and “Sanctus” are early indications of Astley’s unique aesthetic, an application of traditional English pastoral and liturgical motifs to minimal wave chamber pop. An atmosphere of wistfulness and nostalgia permeates all of Virginia Astley’s early recordings, a complex longing for a particular way of life now irretrievably lost. This isn’t quite the pagan royalism of mythical Albion that became a focal point for the Wicker Man-era 1960s British folk revival (and the subsequent re-revival in the form of apocalyptic folk), but something far more parochial, abstract, and personal.
The style reached its full expression on Virginia’s masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, released in 1983 on Astley’s own Happy Valley Records imprint, a subsidiary of Rough Trade established specifically for the release of the album. Divided into two movements, “Morning” and “Afternoon,” Gardens broke decisively from the electronic pop of Astley’s early recordings, eschewing vocals and pop structure almost entirely in favor of abstractly decorative works of pastoral neoclassicism. At times Astley gestures towards the ambient drift of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, perhaps an unavoidable comparison for instrumental music of this period, but her command of melody and harmony keep one foot firmly grounded in tradition.
A series of looped field recordings — birdsong, village church bells, the gentle baaing of sheep, the squeaks and scrapes of gardening implements — lend the music an electroacoustic dimension, creating a uniquely mimetic counterpoint to the baroque sensibilities of Astley’s compositions. From The KLF’s Chill Out to Boards Of Canada’s In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, British artists have often returned to this same wellspring of pastoral nostalgia, though Astley’s take has a certain ambiguity all its own.
Following the abstract detour of Gardens, Virginia Astley returned to making electronic pop and continued to record and release music throughout the 80s and 90s, but largely failed to find a discernible audience outside of an insular cult following based largely in Japan. She gently faded into quasi-obscurity over the ensuing decades. Gardens was reissued by Rough Trade in 2003, perhaps in a bid to focus critical attention upon an overlooked masterpiece, but the label may have been a few years too early to make the right kind of impact. A scant year later, Ghost Box began releasing music by a small group of artists focused on (re-)creating an imaginary collective past inexorably tied to British provincialism and a fraught relationship with nostalgia. The music of Belbury Poly in particular seems to slot in nicely with Virginia Astley’s hallucinatory waking dreams of an English village and the security promised by a benevolent social order.
Though it does not appear Astley had much interest in drawing explicit references to trad folk, library music, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her lightweight instrumentals have a certain appealing kind of neoclassical blandness that makes them feel hauntingly familiar, perhaps a residue of her background in commercial composing. Almost 30 years later, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure still manages to insinuate itself into the unconscious with an eerie congeniality, promising sepia-toned nostalgia but delivering something irrevocably strange and ambivalent, a nagging sensation in the corner of one’s memory, a perfect English garden disturbed by the presence of ghosts.
1979: The Pop Group - Y
“It had everything that I thought rock and roll should have. It was violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time.” – Nick Cave on The Pop Group
Cough, the sophomore (and sadly, last) album by the DC outfit Black Eyes, was one of those albums that made all other music seem dopey — and while the effect is always temporary, in this case the feeling lasted for weeks. It was 2004 and dance-punk was riding a wave of popularity that was just reaching its crest. The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” was played at every party, often signaling the point where things got real. Though, despite how good that song is — and it is fantastic — Cough just made it seem thin and gaudy, like so much paper streamer.
It’s not even like the Rapture and co. and Black Eyes were shooting for the same target. The former were interested in packing dance floors while the latter was more on an art-damaged vision quest. Though here’s the thing: Black Eyes could focus on outré experimentation but still create high-energy, funky tracks that felt just as immediate and fun as anything on DFA. It made it seem, if only for a second, like everyone else was reaching for low-hanging fruit. I imagine this is what it was like to hear The Pop Group in 1979.
The group was headed up by Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager, both young students from the southern city of Bristol. Prodded by the same frustrations that stoked the fires of many of the era’s three-chord punk bands, The Pop Group had the same energy and anger as any of its colleagues. Though the group’s debut, a dub-infused, angular monster called Y, has a level of musical inventiveness and general chutzpah that makes it one of early post-punk’s finest moments.
You can hear it right from the first track. “She is Beyond Good an Evil” is built on liquid bass and a jagged guitar that stutters and explodes over and over. Each would be be engaging on their own, but their combination, along with Stewart’s atavistic howl, creates a song that keeps hinting at disco but intentionally holds such accessibility at a distance. The same goes for the following track “Thief of Fire” — there are moments where you can hear a glimmer of straight-forward angular post-punk, but instead of vamping on it, the band has the track melt into a free-jazz sax slog.
Elsewhere, the album delves more into the tropes of no-wave. Rather than delivering melodic aggression like fellow Bristol punk acts The Cortinas and The Agents, the band opts for long abstract dirges filled with aimless dissonance and skronk horns with tracks like “Don’t Call Me Pain.” The longest track, “We Are Time,” has more in common with the layered guitar work of Glenn Branca than anyone else.
What’s impressive about all of this isn’t so much The Pop Group’s decision to slouch toward deconstruction over delivering an overt message. Y isn’t just an album of angry anthems designed as red meat for the young and disaffected — though, through all the willful sonic antagonism it still works like one. And that’s what’s impressive.
“This album’s really a feeling. It’s like, ‘Welcome to yourself.’ You are now here. We are here. This country was born and raised on violence, and now we are adults — and we’re violent,” explains Schoolly D aka Jesse B. Weaver Jr. in a 1994 interview with Gabriel Alvarez. Schoolly makes it known where he stands in the age-old debate of art imitating life vs. life imitating art. However, one would be remiss to assume that Welcome to America is yet another “ghetto CNN” record. The tales contained on this album’s 13 tracks are not so much news reports as they are a series of psychological profiles, and the black bogeymen Schoolly bluntly portrays represent the realization of conservative white America’s deepest fear: drug-crazed, gun-toting black gangsters run amok, raping and murdering at will, without consequence or remorse. Hide your daughters! Arm your sons!
Of course, Schoolly’d been purposely pissing off pastoids for his entire career, which by this point was already ten years deep. The difference this time around is that much of the cartoonish humor and Black Nationalist imagery of his prior efforts have been stripped away, while the sex, drugs and violence are all taken to post-parody extremes. For example, in place of crudely drawn asses or a red, black, and green banner, the cover art now features black and white photographs of urban decay; similarly, “Peace to the Nation” (a song off 1991’s How A Black Man Feels) is replaced with “Peace Of What,” a cynical diatribe in the tradition of Main Source’s “Peace is Not the Word to Play;” and where once Schoolly rapped about his mom waving a gun at the girl he snuck into his room after hours (on “Saturday Night”), he now gets a woman high, takes her out to dinner, brings her home, kicks her ass, fucks her, then shoots her in the head (on “I Wanna Get Dusted”). The carnage escalates on “Niggas Like Me,” in which Schoolly raps:
“All I wanna do is get you in my caddy/ I don’t give a fuck about your mommy or your daddy/ ‘Cause niggas like me, don’t you bother/ We don’t give a fuck about a bitch-ass father/ At the table I eat up all the dinner/ I pinch your granny on the ass like a winner/ I fuck your little sister/ I got the ho calling me Mister/ Big Dick, real slick, real sick/ I fucked the ho then I dropped her real quick/ I put your little brother in a gang/ I sit back and watch the nigga bang.”
In a sense, this album is like a gangsta rap version of The Last House on the Left, except instead of, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only music,’” the Intro tells us most invitingly and accommodatingly, “All the motherfuckers is welcome: hardcore niggas, gangsta bitches, ho’s, motherfucking bitches…” Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s Allmusic review states, “It helps that the record contains the best music he has ever recorded, although the best moments can’t hide the fact that Schoolly D doesn’t have the lyrical grace of the rappers that followed in his footsteps.” While I partially agree, in that I think the beats on here are some of the best Schoolly has ever produced (more on that later), I have to add that if you’re looking for “lyrical grace” in a Schoolly D album, then you’re totally missing the point. First of all, the man improvised the majority of his vocals, so there’s that. Second, and more importantly, it was never Schoolly’s intent to woo his audience with beautiful turns of phrase, so for him to dress up his rhymes simply because the game had changed would be to cater to expectations of how he should sound, an act antithetical to everything he ever represented. Grace and subtlety are absent from his words, but so too are they absent from the world he describes. After all, this is not Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love; this is Philadelphia, The City That Bombed Itself. Hence, the language, like the artwork, is all black and white.
As entertaining and provocative as the lyrical polemics are, it’s the beats on Welcome to America that are perhaps most appealing and illustrative of Schoolly’s artistic growth. I use the word “beats” as a standard term for hip-hop production, but it is traditional instrumentation that serves as the backbone of this album’s production side. While all of his prior releases relied primarily on drum machines, samples and turntables, here, a full band — including Schoolly himself as well as a young Scott Storch (pre-superproducer trappings) on keys — is added to the mix. Uninformed listeners who equate ‘hip-hop bands’ with the abysmal rap rock fad of the late ’90s rather than the old studio musicians employed by labels like Sugar Hill Records can just check that pretension at the door.
Remember, Schoolly is the rapper responsible for such classic numbers as “I Don’t Like Rock N’ Roll” and “No More Rock N’ Roll,” so it’s safe to assume that even quality hard rock-inspired production ala the Beastie Boys or Run DMC was the furthest thing from his mind when he entered the studio. “I grew up on Funkadelic, Parliament, Buddy Miles, Average White Band, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire,” says Weaver, and the MC’s musical tastes likely shed some light on the direction the musicians received from himself and executive producers Chris Schwartz and Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, as the beats on here are best classified as heavy funk meets Philadelphia soul. And though one might look to connect this sound with that of The Roots, who also employed Scott Storch and released their debut, Organix, just a year prior, it’s the criminally slept-on illadelphia hip-hop trio The Goats who provide a better basis for comparison, as their two albums – 1992’s Tricks of the Shade and 1994’s No Goats No Glory – were both produced by The Butcher as well.
Another plausible inspiration was the affiliation of Schoolly D with film director Abel Farrara, who’d pestered Schoolly into allowing him to use his music as the soundtrack for the 1990 classic King of New York starring Christopher Walken. Though Schoolly wouldn’t physically sit down to score an entire film on his own until 1996’s Lowball, it strikes me as far from inconceivable that Schoolly was by 1994 already looking toward a second career as a film composer. Furthermore, witnessing firsthand how well his music complemented the on-screen action of King of New York (and vice versa) definitely could’ve encouraged him to further explore the already-cinematic elements of his sound. Note the gunshots and siren-like horns on “I Know You Want To Kill Me” and the resonant buildup giving way to a basic pimp-strut bass line on “I Shot Da Bitch.” Devices such as these and others are used throughout the record to build and release dramatic tension, crafting a series of audible story arcs, the last of which culminates with “Stop Frontin,” which uses a sequence of cinematic skits in place of a hook.
While Welcome to America’s finale, “Another Sign,” doesn’t so much resolve the album’s conflicts as it reiterates or summarizes them, it does offer up a poignantly sobering narrative: “Sitting at the breakfast table smoking me a spliff/ Say what’s up to my little sis/ Thirteen and already knocked up/ But the little black daddy don’t give a fuck/ Our momma mad ‘cause she gave up/ Took her to church every week but couldn’t save her/ I got a daughter and a son/ Before he say “daddy” little nigga might say “gun”…” The bleakness is exacerbated by a beautiful, if hopeless, gospel chorus of male and female crooners harmonizing along with the song’s main blues riff. Meanwhile, the rhythm section’s intoxicating effect strikes an ingenious counterbalance. Family dysfunction never sounded so goddamn smooth.
For further discussion of Schoolly D’s production prowess, check out this post I contributed to the t.r.o.y. blog.
1993: PJ Harvey - Rid of Me
Rid of Me is one of those odd, fucked up instances of artistic immortality – like the bizarre Henry James novella Turn of the Screw – that makes you wonder how a work so recalcitrant became a classic. Even today, it remains awkward, ungainly and raw – less full bodied than some of Harvey’s other work, less driven by characters or narratives. Her first LP, Dry, is not exactly a cheery album either, but compared to Rid of Me it has a lot of spirit. Dry is out all night at parties coming home re-energized by the experience. Rid of Me sounds like its energy is illuminated by a strange mania – dragged over the coals after a bender that spanned lost years in the mid-20s. I still can’t listen to the full album without experiencing what feels very like a sympathetic hangover. Honestly, I often take it in by ingesting the chunks that I can handle and then throwing it away for a while. I always think of classic albums as ones that flow seamlessly. But the songs on Rid of Me stutter and falter, governed by random jolts and impulses of erratic energy.
This is why I think of Rid of Me as a very early 90s album: ornery, hungover, and ugly, and no better man for the job of recording such an album than Steve Albini. Though PJ later hired the ubiquitous Flood to produce To Bring You My Love, Rid of Me is a more representatively messy stab in the entrails, with its metallic, distortion-heavy guitars and frequent screaming.
Harvey always said she liked exploring what was dark and unacceptable. This naturally led to much probing over the years from journalists who thought she must be a crazy she-monster with a feminist agenda. Bravely, politely in her always pleasant West Country tones, Harvey would explain that she was doing this alone as an artist exploring new territories, rather than as a feminist backed by a cause. Judging by the influences she cited at the time of making Rid of Me, Harvey was attempting to harness the dirty power of the blues and rock that she had grown up with (she cited Howlin’ Wolf amongst others). On To Bring You My Love, it was Captain Beefheart who stoked the fires of her strange narratives.
Enter the 33 1/3 series tribute to Rid of Me. Unlike other books in the classic album series, it’s a novel about two women’s escape into a Sapphic relationship. I can’t criticize it as a work of literature, not having read it. But if I were to sum up Rid of Me as a story, it wouldn’t be a fable – and certainly not a fable of escaping into an interior women-only world. PJ Harvey may have been recovering from a failed relationship at the time of making the album, but when she recorded these splintered, heroic tracks, she was playing energetically in the studio with her all-male band. She spoke highly of Steve Albini for his supportive, deliberate fidelity to the band’s sound. It’s not that this can’t be a feminist album if you want it to be. It’s just that the anger – as captured in the studio - is staunchly individualistic, doesn’t expect to be saved or damned, doesn’t expect or ask much – just hinges on the survival of its protagonist.
The line: “I might as well be dead… but I could kill you instead” says it all for me. Rid of Me is PJ’s realist album: in the eye of the storm its extreme emotional circumstances demand extreme unpleasant reactions. It isn’t one of Harvey’s dress-up albums, like To Bring You My Love, or recently, White Chalk. There are no murder ballads, or songs named after doomed women (as on Is This Desire?). The genius of strident songs like “Me Jane” is the extreme irritability of them. “Damn your chest-beating, stop your fucking screaming” – could well be the cry of a harassed female neighbor living underneath’s Tarzan’s flat - or Todd Aikin or whoever is doing the tiresome chest-beating this week.
1994: Rodan - Rusty
I still remember the first time I heard Rusty. I had ordered it weeks prior from a bookstore with no idea what it would sound like. A friend had told me, “Hey, you like Slint? Check out Rodan, they’re even better.” With a recommendation like that I couldn’t resist, and I spent those new couple weeks wondering what I would be in for. Finally it came. I had picked it up and was getting a ride home from a friend and his dad, the dad asked what CD it was and if I wanted to play it. I reluctantly said sure, not really knowing what was to expect.
Thank god for the opening track. If you haven’t heard Rusty’s stunning seven minute opener, please just click the link right now and come back. For an album with a reputation involving the words “post-hardcore,” “math-rock,” and “lots o’ screaming,” the guitar instrumental “Bible Silver Corner” is often overlooked. It sets the perfect ominously beautiful tone for what’s to come, while keeping you in the dark in terms of all the surprises this band has.
Seven minutes. The car ride took six and a half, and I got my CD back without hearing track two. Had we been stuck at an extra light or something and allowed another 30 seconds, the speakers would have exploded with “Shiner,” a brief blast of hardcore at the polar opposite of the gentle opener. Thankfully I was able to avoid that awkward situation, get home and hear Rusty from start to finish for the first time.
Spiderland is kind of a slow build until the end, Rodan gives you their strongest moment as the centerpiece of the album. After the lengthy complex guitar workout and “Shiner’s” raving hardcore freak-out comes “The Everyday World of Bodies,” an 11-minute synthesis of the two. Guitarists Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble’s guitars are constantly shifting and transforming into new sections, as do the vocals which go everywhere from barely-there whispers to blood curdling screams. That final section, with the call-and-response (although scream-and-scream-back-louder is probably more appropriate) of “I WILL BE THERE (SWEAR!)” still gives me chills.
While the first half of Rusty consists of that perfectly logical evolution to “Bodies,” it sort of plateaus in the second half. That’s a good thing. Songs like “Jungle Jim” and “Gauge” explore and develop the sound introduced by “Bodies,” but with an added surprise: bassist Tara Jane O’Neil. Her vocals create a tremendous impression and without her sudden vocal appearance half way through the album, Rusty could have been at risk of sounding a little same-y by the end. Instead she adds wonderful personality to the songs she sings on, especially closer “Tooth Fairy Retrubution Manifesto,” where her mumbled vocals eventually turn into fierce growls as Noble and Mueller slice through with shimmering harmonics.
The frustrating fact is Rusty might forever be cursed to play second fiddle. Just as Ride’s Nowhere is an album people come to after spending a great deal of time with Loveless, many people (myself included) came across Rusty due to its endless comparisons to Slint’s Spiderland. But while it is similar to Spiderland in sound, Rusty is a progression of it, not a retread. The comparisons, to me, have less to do with the distinctive musicianship, and more with the real sincerity coming through on the records. Sincerity is something that has seemed increasingly elusive for bands labeled “post-rock” that are willing to float by with complex but predictable songs and long pretentious names, but Rodan is more than weird time signatures. It has a sense of gravity to it from the moment you hear the first darkly elegant notes of “Bible Silver Corner,” and there’s toughness thanks in part to Bob “Rusty” Weston, the album’s engineer and namesake.
I still have that same CD that I ordered back in high school, though it’s considerably worse for wear. I started listening to the album again recently as I’m sure many people did after what happened last month. For the first time in a few years, the experience left me really happy. I was surprised at how familiar and great these songs which I hadn’t visited in so long still felt. It’s been amazing being able to rediscover them, I just wish it was under different circumstances.
RIP Jason Noble.
Long before Yes became one of the main pillars of 70s prog and an unofficial inspiration for 00s indie rock ambition (See Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and The Decemberists’ Crane Wife for two examples), Steve Howe had already proven himself an amazing musician. His fluid guitar work with occasional excursions into exotic sounds was well cemented by his previous band, Tomorrow. They were a criminally underlooked band that deserves a place in history, if not for being an important lynchpin in psychedelia, then for their ecstatically played music.
Although now considered minor players in the London psychedelic scene – inevitably compared to Pink Floyd’s massive success and recognition – Tomorrow were one of the finest bands in the city playing far out music. On their signature number, “My White Bicycle,” most of the songs seems to be played backwards. Unlike San Francisco hippie bands, they weren’t all about “jamming.” And, unlike the Velvet Underground, they weren’t about testing the listener with noise and challenging sounds and themes. In other words, they weren’t made to be endured, they were made to be enjoyed. Tomorrow reflected a sound that became synonymous with LSD and wild parties, a sound that lasted from Sgt. Pepper until the arrival of folk rock (Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), heavy metal (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple) and, yes, prog rock.
And that’s why I love them. They summoned a ton of simple elements in an organic fashion and made them seem like the most insane thing in the world. Their music was ahead of their time, their performances filled with so much joy, madness, and primal energy that you can’t help but dance and scream with belligerent feeling, even if they are only talking about “green” modes of transportation.
If you’re deeply familiar with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as one should be), you know that at the end of “Poor Places,” amid the noise and the feedback, there is a stately female voice repeating the title of the album: Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. What you may not know is that this is a sample from something called a shortwave numbers station. Shortwave numbers stations have been a favorite topic among conspiracy theorists for decades now; they emit mysterious broadcasts of series of numbers, letters, or phrases. The traditional story is that they are used by governments to communicate to spies (and a story in the Daily Telegraph in 1998 confirms this. A spokesman for the U.K.’s Department of Trade and Industry is quoted as saying, “They’re not, shall we say, for public consumption”). The important part, though, is that they are broadcasts of unknown origin and unknowable content, issuing forth, waiting to be interpreted. Wilco was in a legal battle concerning their use of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sample, and their side of the argument hinged on the fact of the audio’s mysteriousness: who can own a sample that has no fixed origin or creator?
Wilco was being sued by Irdial-Discs, who released The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations in 1997. This album is the result of years of laborious study by label head Akin Fernandez, who spent long hours tracking these stations and keeping a log of his findings. It consists of 150 recordings of shortwave numbers stations with track titles such as “Three Note Oddity” and “Czech Lady.” Originally a labor of love for Fernandez, these recordings have gained a cult following in the 15 years since their release. Fernandez’s legal win over Wilco financed a second pressing of the record in 2004, and although the vinyl is currently out of print again, the publicity that the case created for the project expanded its audience considerably. It is now available online through the Internet Archive.
Listening to the record, one can tell why it has an appeal for a certain kind of found-sound fetishist. Though the recordings seemingly come from all over the world (they are spoken in English, Spanish, Czech, Russian, German, and Chinese, among other languages, but their points of origin are impossible to guess), they share a lo-fi fuzz and an incessant repetition of words and tones that instill a sense of fascinated dread. They accumulate a bit too much dread in the listener after their five-hour running time is up, but in short sessions these shortwave recordings provide a worthwhile glimpse into a paranoiac world.
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.