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.
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.
1987: Live Skull - Dusted
It’s not surprising that history has been a bit negligent to Live Skull — after all, Sonic Youth released Sister the same year as Dusted, and any shred of competition between SY and their New York contemporaries (including Live Skull) would be obliterated with the follow-up release of Daydream Nation in 1988. Frankly, when a shadow that huge is cast, it’s easy to overlook where it falls. To compare the two bands on that basis is unfair, but they are worth linking, as Live Skull’s general sound often strikes me as a spikier progression of what Sonic Youth evoked on Bad Moon Rising: unease and dread in the shape of eerie, foreboding noise-rock. Dusted is just where Live Skull hit a cohesive peak.
One of the more unlikely things about Dusted is that the more a copy of it ages — i.e., the more its outer jacket becomes tattered, the more surface noise it collects — the creepier it becomes. The album’s cover photo of a decrepit, abandoned warehouse becomes more sinister when the LP sleeve is warped and creased with water damage, as my copy was when I bought it for a pocketful of change. Of course, it helps that tracks like the sickly and desperately haunted “Kream” and “5-D” manage to be both ghostly and viscerally physical, and while Martin Bisi’s production has yielded a bit flat with age, that cavernous 80s drum sound lends itself fittingly to the abandoned warehouse mystique.
Dusted was also the introduction of Live Skull’s new lead vocalist, Thalia Zedek. Zedek’s husky yowl — think of Kim Gordon after consuming a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes — is gripping. The rest of the band sings on a few songs (the Marnie Greenholz-led “W/ The Light” opens with a particularly engaging wall of guitars), but Zedek’s presence more often matches the band’s musical intensity, poised somewhere between audible confrontation and struggle. Take Dusted’s opening track, “Machete” — while it may not be an anthem on the level of “Schizophrenia,” it’s still a hell of a way to introduce Live Skull’s new line-up, all memorable guitar parts, driving rhythms, and Zedek’s straining rasp as she repeatedly seethes “burn.” So while Live Skull’s previous album Cloud One has some better songs, I find that Zedek’s commanding voice, alongside the apparitional harmonic guitar interplay of Mark C and Tom Paine, makes Dusted the slightly better record.
One reason why Live Skull have seemingly been relegated to footnote status among 80s noise-rock bands may be that, despite possessing qualities often associated with New York-based noise-rock in the years following no wave (e.g., chiming harmonics, alt-tuning sound textures, feedback), Live Skull didn’t concern themselves so much with innovation or experimentation, opting instead to reel in elements of this sort of post-no wave sound into a more tightly constructed rock. It’s a type of sound that was really picked up upon later in the Pacific Northwest: Unwound really mastered and set a new level for the dynamic and atmospheric ends of this sound by the end of the 90s; today, Broken Water seem to be carrying parts of that torch. I won’t link this all back to Live Skull, as their influence is suspect given relative historical obscurity, but the sound links are uncanny and worth hearing.
Though age, other projects, and lineup changes have varied the landscape ever so slightly, for the past two decades Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond have been one of the preeminent names in American psychedelic music. Officially formed in 1992, as of 2001 Bardo Pond has consisted of guitarists Mike and John Gibbons, bassist Clint Takeda, drummer Jason Kokournis, and Isobel Sollenberger on flute, violin, and voice. Their work ranges from sparse, airy drone-rock to pounding, nearly anthemic spooge, and they’ve also collaborated with a number of like-minded heads including Roy Montgomery (Hash Jar Tempo) and Fursaxa. Recently they’ve waxed recordings for Important and Fire Records, and their live presence around the Northeast remains surely in place.
In April 2003, guitarist Tom Carter (Charlambides, Spiderwebs) was visiting Philly and set up a pair of sessions with Bardo Pond. The live and studio results were captured on 4/23/03, one of the earlier releases on American rural/psych imprint Three Lobed. In fact, the label actually took off with Bardo’s music by releasing Slab in 2000 (now long out of print), so it’s fitting that a dozen years later Three Lobed has reissued 4/23/03 as a double LP with an extra track from the date, as well as another hour’s worth of live material (on an included CD) from two days later. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the band ends and Carter’s playing begins, and that’s certainly a fine result – one storied musician’s total integration into the environment.
As one who has only witnessed the group at their loudest and most cutting, this set is an entirely different proposition, with the three guitarists exploring sinewy interlocking textures across a bed of indeterminate hiss on the second movement, while the opener finds its legs extraordinarily quickly once Kokournis sets up a dry, fluid, and bobbing tempo. Electric violin threads through a rather elegantly layered tangle, and while the music rolls along at a fairly nodded-out pace, it’s easy to miss the level of interaction and intensity between the six musicians. Sollenberger’s reverb-drenched voice and flute wander in and out of a tense, skittering ensemble on the third piece, building organically to a series of toothy false crescendos. On the face of it, this 20-minute improvisation might not seem like something one couldn’t get elsewhere, done “right” there’s no doubt that Bardo Pond can bring it. While at first the live set might seem like more of the same – indeed, Bardo Pond often harp on related principles – patience brings realization, as even with middling fidelity and barroom noise on the central 43-minute jam, open eyes will discern a varied plain. If you’re looking for a place to test the waters, this extensive LP/CD set is a great place to start, and it consists of the band’s most engaging work.
Everything about this legendary album screams bad taste. The title, Randy’s drugged out mug on the cover, a fan-boy love song to Idi Amin, not to mention the pair of covers that close the album: “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “(Theme from) Shaft,” which are belted out by Black Randy, who is in fact white – of course he is. Randy and the Metrosquad were obviously out to offend and be funny. Surprisingly though, they weaved their snide antagonistic themes around killer performances. That style became a legacy that other talented assholes – from Ween to Matt Stone and Trey Parker; even Odd Future – have carried on like the unholy Torch of Dickishness.
The music on Pass the Dust takes the general tropes of what punk sounded like at the time and warps them. The album is stuffed with organ solos, jazzy piano, and a groovy-as-hell drum and bass team of Joe Ramirez, Jack Nanini, and Keith Barrett. The fractured sound of the Metrosquad evokes the proto-punk insanity of The Magic Band, but never falls into just sounding like a throwback to Beefheart.
Black Randy’s voice will forever be why this album is remembered. At the end of the day you can take all those funky grooves (even the one at the very beginning of “Laundromat” that sounds a bit like “North American Scum”) and still nothing could ever upstage Randy when he promises “not to cum in your mouth.” Meanwhile, Idi Amin’s lyrics sound like they could have been used for the Shangri-Las in some nightmarish alternate reality when the man croons, “He’s my panda from Uganda, he’s my teddy bear/ They say bad things about him but I don’t care.” Later, Randy fantasizes of Amin visiting New York to go to CBGBs with him, all in his slurred voice that acts as a nice stepping-stone from Captain Beefheart to David Yow.
Pass the Dust being their only album, I originally couldn’t help wondering why it didn’t fall through the cracks. It still remains obscure, but is fondly remembered by those who’ve taken the time to seek it out (See: Yo la Tengo’s stunning “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”). After investing some time in the album, its cult obsessions becomes understandable, even when removed from the romanticism of obscurity and Randy’s death in 1988. Pass the Dust is heavily intoxicating, and despite all the nastiness abound, a pretty damn good time.
Don Bradshaw-Leather was born 1948 in Essex, the son of middle-class Jewish parents. According to Bradshaw-Leather’s sister, “[Don] grew with and into music more by genetic destiny than environmental consequence.” During the long, dark hangover of the Summer of Love, the classically-trained prodigy approached CBS Records with demo recordings. Though it seems incredible in hindsight, a forward-thinking A&R executive must have seen a potential revenue stream in Bradshaw-Leather’s avant-classical noise. The artist was given a generous advance to record an album. DBL’s sister fills in the blanks: “[Don] used the funds to create a large studio in Sussex with many instruments including an actual church organ. Here, on his own, without the use of any electronic sequencing, he recorded Distance Between Us using simply multitrack tape, layering each part of the composition.”
Upon hearing the product of their financial investment — four side-long tracks of blurry organ drones, frantic piano tinkling, and ritualistic percussion — CBS understandably got cold feet. The album was self-released on Bradshaw-Leather’s own Distance imprint, a vanity label established for the sole purpose of releasing the album. Pressed in a tiny edition, mint condition copies of the album can fetch up to $500 at auction today. The double gatefold sleeve is full of mysteries, from the misspelling of “Bradshaw” (“Bradsham”), to the coal-blackened visage of the bohemian madman on the cover (DBL himself?), to the rear photo collage depicting the same madman accosting a nude woman. The music isn’t any less mysterious; shapeless symphonies of smeared-out Mellotron, tribal drums, and wordless vocals. After swimming in the album for a little while, the absence of structure begins to seem utterly logical, and the album washes over like a peyote-induced Gothic fever dream. Don Bradshaw-Leather passed away in the 90s, making a reissue of this classic oddity seem increasingly less likely, though David Tibet of Current 93 has intermittently announced plans for a reissue on his own Coptic Cat label over the years. It’s an inspired match. Here’s hoping it comes to pass.