1979: Rodriguez - Cold Fact
Usually, the best a “forgotten” artist can hope for is to be slowly discovered by proceeding generations. With a little luck, the right taste-making crate digger might stumble across a lost treasure and start talking it up. Maybe Hip Band will talk about what an influence said artist is on their new album. The bloggers will blog, the music journalists will shower praise, and the artist and his/her records will achieve a tiny fraction of the success that, for what ever reason, eluded them in the first place.
A less common scenario involves your records achieving cult status in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, treasured by a reverent fan-base, while your person is hailed as a revolutionary-slash-messiah. Outrageous rumors circulate: he’s stopped putting out albums ‘cause he killed himself after being jailed for the murder of his wife; he’s died of a heroin overdose; he was electrocuted on stage. Or the best: he committed suicide on stage, either by setting himself on fire or by blowing his brains out.
The latter, slightly rarer situation, is the exact one Detroit folk-rocker Sixto Diaz Rodriguez found himself in in the early ‘90s when, after living a settled life since the early ‘80s, his daughter discovered his legendary status in South Africa through a fan site. His profile was starting to grow in America, and now Light in the Attic (who’ve also delivered stellar reissues from the likes of Noel Ellis, Betty Davis, Karen Dalton, and The Free Design) has re-released his debut, Cold Fact, with expanded liner notes detailing his whole bizarre ascendancy.
While the whole thing might seem a bit underwhelming considering its godhead status with some, Cold Fact is a pretty killer album, even when you remove its strange story. Opener “Sugar Man” channels the same seedy, narcotic vibe as Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman,” and if it weren’t for lyrics like “Silver magic ships you carry/ Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane,” one might mistake it for some misplaced Donovan B-side. “Only Good For Conversation” follows, bearing more than a little similarity to fellow Motor City rockers like The Amboy Dukes, Frijid Pink, Grand Funk Railroad, and the Bob Seger System. The track's stomping, fuzz-laden approach momentarily erases the careening strings and space sounds that proceeded it, but “Crucify Your Mind” returns things to a trippier place, with gutiarist/producer Dennis Coffey and a band of soul legends (including some members of the esteemed Funk Brothers) providing a supple backdrop for Rodriguez’s truly menacing lyrics. The harsh realities of inner city life are contrasted against the glossy but fading dream of the Woodstock era: “Was it huntsman or a player/ That made you pay the cost/ That now assumes relaxed position/ And prositutes your loss.”
“This Is Not A Song It’s An Outburst: Or the Establishment Blues” could be heard as a send-up of Dylan’s stream of consciousness rambles if it didn’t seem so damn earnest. Rodriguez spits lines like “Adultery plays the kitchen, bigot cops non-fiction/ The little man gets shafted, sons and daughters get drafted” with dramatic, street-level conviction. “Hate Street Dialogue” offers the middle finger to the dreamy San Fran scene, while tunes like “Forget It” and “Like Janis” showcase the bitter, near-punk snarl just underneath Rodriguez’s clear, tuneful vocals. “I Wonder” addresses sexual jealousy over a shuffling Motown bass line, its bouncy, sweet melody creating a perfectly uneasy juxtaposition as he sings about war and slut girlfriends. “Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)” blends a busted blues rattle with a terrifically creepy children’s choir that backs up the chorus, then we're treated to a bit of just barely out-of- key “America the Beautiful” on the way out.
“Rich Folks Hoax” and “Inner City Blues” (not a Gaye cover) address the social unrest of Detroit, and the bitter, malicious bent of the lyric contrasts nicely with the hopeful stride of civil rights-era soul, which clearly influenced the sound of the album. “Jane S. Piddy” ends things with a casual shrug of the shoulders. “I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears/ The Wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears/ Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers,” Rodriguez intones, seeming more content to sound bad-ass than poignant, but then follows with a mournful refrain of “I know you’re lonely.” The struggle between tenderness and machismo, or the attempt to find one in the other, shades the album, and in the end, Rodriguez resorts to a tiny bit of spoken word: “Thanks for your time/ And you can thank me for mine/ And after that’s said/ Forget it,” siding, at least for now, on the role of steal-eyed realist.
It was that last line, South African myths would report, that Rodriguez delivered just before he blew his brains out on stage. And while it’s true that he never did so, it’s not hard to imagine why one might suppose he could. Cold Fact sounds like the work of a guy who might decide it’s all pretty worthless. But it also sounds like a guy who isn’t entirely sold on the idea. “Bag it, man,” the album ends. “Okay.”
There's an episode of the classic Nickelodeon TV show The Adventures of Pete and Pete, in which the younger brother Pete becomes strangely fascinated with a song he hears being played in a garage by a mysterious band. Following this encounter, the band inexplicably disappears off the face of the earth, leaving Pete to recall the song from memory -- by no means an easy task for the young, red-haired iconoclast. The real tragedy is that if Pete had even a slight acquaintance with 1980s indie pop, he might have recognized Mark Mulcahy, lead singer of the show's house band, Polaris, and former frontman of Miracle Legion. After making the connection, Pete could've drawn from the plethora of sweet, jangly pop tunes from Miracle Legion's discography. Perhaps with a bit of luck, he would've discovered their masterpiece, Me and Mr. Ray. But sadly, Pete knew nothing of the Miracle Legion, and the best he could do was muster up a cover rendition of the song with a little help from the quirky locals of Wellsville.
Starting out in 1984, Miracle Legion released a few EPs with little fanfare before signing to Rough Trade in 1987. During this three-year period, they garnered minor college radio success, but were always dogged by lazy, cursory comparisons to R.E.M. Ostensibly, these comparisons might seem valid, but contrasting Stipe and Mulcahy's approach to songcraft paints a wildly divergent picture. It wasn't until Me and Mr. Ray, their third proper full-length, that Miracle Legion started to chart new directions and shake erroneous associations. From opening track "The Ladies From Town," it's obvious that Mr. Ray is a more idiosyncratic and experimental endeavor, though it doesn't end up straying too far from the pop hooks the band were so good at.
In lieu of jangly, electric guitars, the majority of the album favors pristine acoustic arrangements and playfully abstract lyrics, often bolstered with equally youthful and capricious instrumentation. Even more, the rhythm section seems much further subdued ("You're The One Lee"), even disappearing altogether at points ("Old & New"). Through conscious effort, Mulcahy's songwriting is in the forefront, resulting in newfound sense of immediacy. You can't help but give Me and Mr. Ray your full attention as it shifts from fast-paced folk songs like "The Ladies From Town" to dark, slow-burning ballads like "Pull The Wagon," which acts as the album's centerpiece and is arguably the most complex and bleak song Miracle Legion ever penned.
Lyrically, the album is somewhat ambiguous, never making it clear whether Mulcahy is writing about fictional characters or from personal experience. His songs shift perspective in terms of location and time, further confusing anyone attempting to make direct interpretations. What is clear, however, is a common thread of loss and rumination over the nature of human relationships, what comes before and after, and the burden of their having existed in the first place. This is driven home in the beautiful and softened closer, "Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call," which stands as an emotive highpoint in Mulcahy's career.
The Miracle Legion seems to be another band lost to time, even to their much more exposed side-project, Polaris. Such oversight is tragic, in the same way it was tragic when little Pete couldn't recall the song that moved him so deeply. Fortunately for those willing to look, Me and Mr. Ray remains a unique, palatable, and affecting experience .
[Note: This review is intended as a friendly rebuttal to [David Brusie’s exaltation of Tim->http://tinymixtapes.com/The-Replacements].]
When discussing The Replacements, I am fond of quoting Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, who, in his original A+ review of Let It Be, wrote: “Bands like this don’t have roots, or principles either, they just have stuff they like.” Now, throughout his long and inspiring career, Christgau has been guilty of portentous idiocy from time to time (Bossanova is the best Pixies album?), but when he’s right, he’s right, and Let It Be is the ‘Mats’ indisputable masterpiece. There are those, however, who call it “scattershot” and dismiss Paul Westerberg’s jumbling of sensitive balladry and sloppy kitsch as bratty self-sabotage. These detractors tend to prefer 1985’s Tim, the band’s Sire debut, which contains 11 competently-played, easily-digestible pop songs that all sound as though they actually belong on the same record. But it was precisely this earlier mess that defined The Replacements; they were just kids in a garage, pinching Ted Nugent riffs and singing about drugs and dicks, occasionally tossing off something beautiful and pretending not to realize it. Their jokes had just as much soul as their art --- when Westerberg sang “Gary’s got a boner/ Gary’s got a soft-on,” he meant it.
Three records in, it took guts for these guys -- who had started off in Minneapolis circa 1979 as slightly-tuneful hardcore punkers -- to betray any hint of sincerity, maturity, or ambition, lest the devoted fan lose his bearings. Of course, they had never let that sort of thing bother them; The Replacements were legendary for antagonizing their audiences with almost Kaufman-esque cruelty. At a gig in, say, Nashville, the band was likely to play fast and loud until only punks remained, at which point they would dust off the country moves. Ho ho. Slashed amps and tipped vans were not uncommon.
It was a given that Let It Be was going to cost The Replacements a fair slice of their original fanbase. If the songs hadn’t been worth a damn, that might’ve been the end right there. Still, I imagine scores of arty-farty R.E.M. disciples buying the record for Peter Buck’s solo on “I Will Dare,” straining to stick it out at least through Side A, then frisbeeing the thing against a wall before collapsing back into the safe, reliable arms of jangle-pop.
Describing this album as scattershot hardly does it justice. Not once does it settle into a certain groove, musically or otherwise, for two songs in a row. The folky shuffle of “I Will Dare” gives way to the sweetly punkish “Favorite Thing,” before “We’re Coming Out” completely eclipses the band’s first four years of hardcore. Only The Replacements would have sandwiched the bleary-eyed jazz-pop of “Androgynous” between “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and a shambolic (and underrated) cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond.” George Martin has been quoted as saying he always wanted to trim The White Album down to one LP. Just think, if The Beatles had taken his advice and had been four boozy Midwesterners born from 1959-66 who shared a penchant for The New York Dolls and The Stones, The White Album would have sounded something like Let It Be. (That made no sense, I know, but it was fun to write.)
As for the copping of the Fab Four’s title, it was the ‘Mats’ canny way of making a brazen grab at classic-rock status and simultaneously admitting they’d never make it. But, true to form, they weren’t giving themselves enough credit. And I think they knew it, even then.
Rock scenes don’t usually have a single saxophone-based band, but in the ’90s, Boston had two. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ pugnacious, goofy ska-rock was the polar opposite of the subtle, dangerous Morphine, but they both regularly sold out the Middle East in Central Square, and they both had modest radio hits.
The Bosstones, of course, also had a major hit -- 1997's “The Impression That I Get” -- but in ’92, they were only known primarily in Boston and Cambridge. That year saw the release of More Noise and Other Disturbances, the band’s second record and their first to downplay ska in favor of hard rock and punk. The horns/distortion combination was new at the time, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones became credited with inventing the genre thereafter known as “ska-core” (a term cemented on the band’s covers EP, Ska-Core, The Devil and More).
It’s tempting to write off The Bosstones as a ’90s novelty, but the band’s best work -- including Disturbances and Question The Answers -- holds up surprisingly well. Though their punchy horns and dirty distortion acted as their calling card, it was only window dressing to the feisty but structured songs. “Awfully Quiet,” the leadoff track from More Noise and Other Disturbances, is as close as the band got to a thesis statement. “I like noise, that’s why I’m living where I am/ I like the noise and confusion of traffic jam,” says singer Dicky Barrett in the song’s first five seconds. The rest of the record supports this sentiment, from the raucous “Doctor D” (about the band’s rehearsal space below the titular doctor’s office) to “Guns And The Young,” whose refrain, “57 Magnum/ 9-millimeter handgun/ AK-47, and an uzi submachine gun,” is at first quietly chanted and then screamed.
Underneath this bombast, however, are the melodies that make these songs go down easy. “Where’d You Go” became a hit, and with good reason. It’s one of the band’s catchiest songs, and despite an angsty narrative -- the protagonist audibly shuts his car door and walks into his house, only to discover he’s been dumped -- the track is straight-up fun. Same goes for “It Can’t Hurt,” which starts with a peppy horn phrase and slips into the rumbling, punchy ska-pop that the band would later make famous.
There are a few missteps, such as the cringe-inducing “Bad In Plaid,” in which Barrett explains his band’s fashion choices. But it’s interesting to hear such a polished, digestible sound on an indie punk label, and even more interesting to hear a band on the verge of fame. Their next record, 1993’s Don’t Know How To Party, was on major label Mercury, and its successor Question The Answers would find the Bosstones at their most tuneful and focused. The rest of their story is typical rock fodder -- a huge hit, a disappointing follow-up, a casually announced hiatus, and periodic reunions.
At their peak, however, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were the sound of pure pleasure, of giddily representing an also-ran city, of giving a shit in an age of grunge-induced stupor. More Noise and Other Disturbances’ final track is the epic “They Came To Boston,” in which a Hub lifer complains about the city's tourists and college students. The track includes a lyric that sums up the band perfectly: “I was here before they came, I’ll be here long after/ Don’t want to swear, but it seems clear that I’m gonna have to/ Awww, fuck.” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones treated organized chaos as an obligation, not a choice, a way to serve their city.
2001: Jay-Z - The Blueprint
On September 11, 2001, the 21st century was born on some great and horrendous, fire and brimstone shit; to the mother of all terrorist attacks and to a father who could not fix what was too real. The world watched as the great Western ideal (read: liberty) took a devastating blow. America watched as its chickens came home to roost, all in the name of martyrdom and 70 virgins. And New York City watched as its own famed skyline burned. The heavens may have been silent (per John Updike), but the king of the charred apple was restless. So he presented us with a gift to assuage this seemingly omnipresent and omniscient curse -- a soundtrack for our newly conceived post-postmodern world. But, really, a blueprint that would become as ubiquitous as it was soulful, and as essential as it was bellicose. The ruler was back, just when he was most needed.
Jay-Z, it would turn out, was the perfect character to lead us into such uncharted territory -- sublime in cinemascope (“nightmare ballet”) but jarringly muted (an endless, collective gasp). Equally gifted and flawed, guilty and innocent, innovative and nostalgic, Jigga and Mr. Carter, Hova and man, his artistic career was at a crossroads on some real Viktor Turner Liminality shit. With two too many volumes of exhausted, generic productions that failed to capture either the hard knocks or times of one S. Carter, the fall was complete. A sundry of belled and whistled Jermaine Dupri and Irv Gotti beats do not a distinctly-NYC DJ Premier sparse, ambient sample make. Far too many nepotistic Roc overtures and undercutting guest appearances will also cramp an artist like Jay-Z. Seven Memphis Bleek appearances on The Dynasty, really!? But in a post-Biggie/Pac world, it was much easier to forgive one of hip-hop’s remaining -- even if fallen -- geniuses, especially when he provided essential, much needed catharsis. So Jay-Z (again) rose on cathartic “pity and terror” (per Aristotle), which he gifted to America via his timely masterpiece, The Blueprint.
What better place is there to express and abandon pity, sorrow, and regret than Church? Jay-Z did just that, as he says on “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)": let’s "take ‘em to Church." To be accurate, it was Jay-Z’s stable of Roc producers, particularly Kanye West and Just Blaze (who would each become household names via their work on The Blueprint) who took ‘em to Church by infusing the album with vintage soul samples that had been largely abandoned in the world of hip-hop. As Exclaim magazine's Del F. Cowie explains, this “distinctive take on using sped-up soul vocal samples, a technique notably used by Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, proved influential, spawning a host of imitators. In the process, the reign of the digitally cold keyboard-driven production style was dislodged as the predominant sound emanating from hip-hop’s birthplace.” This “Laputan” style of production, with one inward eye on the soul and one skyward eye on the past, is best showcased on both West’s aforementioned “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and Blaze’s “Song Cry.” Each producer subsumes disparate techniques and influences, but share the crucial quality of poignant heartache in their aesthetics. And, even more crucially in 2001, the “Heart of the City” became the Twin Towers (there “Ain’t No Love” in terrorism), and the “Song” did not “Cry” alone, for America wept as well.
But what happens after a Nation has shed its last tear? You fight -- for yourself, your neighbor, your country, and your ideals. This pugnacity is precisely the spirit that Jay-Z conveys throughout The Blueprint. Stripped away is the corroding armor, the sub-par guest spots and the tedious Roc-inspired boasts. What’s left is an exposed Jay-Z: hustla’, battler, renegade; you can feel the streets pulsating through every bar. Nowhere is Jay-Z’s reign of terror more obvious than on "Takeover," the caustic dis-track. Over a strident bass line, a baleful vocal sample, and a guitar riff, Jay-Z attacks his rivals, most notably Nas, for accusing him of hip-hop’s most heinous sin: homosexuality. (“H to the izzo, M to the izzo”): “Went from Nasty Nas to Esco’s trash/ Had a spark when you started, but now you’re just garbage/ Fell from top-ten to not mentioned at all/ ‘till your bodyguard’s ‘Oochie Wally’ verse better than yours.” His boastful menacing constitutes most of the album, from his pithy “Sure I do” retort, to a questioning “You don’t know what you do to me” Blaze sample, to his meta-apostolic rants on “Hola Hovita;” this is an artist at his most vulnerable and therefore egotistical (read: defence mechanism). Jay-Z did (read: fought) what America was not yet prepared to do.
The album winds down with the disparate, Eminem-assisted “Renegade,” on which Jay-Z, like a victorious presidential candidate, recounts his escape from a nature-less and nurture-less past: “My pops left me an orphan, my momma wasn’t home/ Could not stress to me I wasn’t grown; ‘specially on nights/ I brought somethin’ home to quiet the stomach rumblings/ My demeanor: thirty years my senior/ My childhood didn’t mean much, only raisin green up/ Raisin’ my fingers to critics; raisin’ my head to the sky/ Big I did it, multi before I die.” A sincere and imaginative culmination, The Blueprint is Jay-Z's best album. He largely leaves behind the tired world of Mafioso-influenced raps and production that dominated his other great album, Reasonable Doubt, creating his own style and sound. He thereby escapes the immense shadow of his friend, Biggie Smalls.
The Blueprint is not only Jay-Z’s greatest album, it's also among the most important American albums of this century. It defined the era. Jay-Z always had a golden ear for progressive production, having popularized the Neptune sound and Timbo’s Eastern-influenced beats; he has an equally clever and biting tongue, but on The Blueprint, he outdid himself in all areas, positing new sounds and ideas that still dominate hip-hop and pop music today. While it's true that art cannot fight a war or physically heal wounds, it can mimic and personify the world that birthed it for all to see, remember, and ultimately learn from -- in this case, pity with terror, healing after hellfire, and wisdom from war. When his music, city, and country fell, Jay-Z and America rose together. In the end, that is the everlasting blueprint of America as a nation and the dream it birthed.
With all the attention it has retrospectively garnered, it's easy to forget that No Wave was like a solar eclipse: brief, disorienting, and remarkable. Consider that less than half of the scene’s seminal groups (DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, The Contortions, Theoretical Girls, Dark Day, 8-eyed Spy) lasted longer than five years, leaving behind scant discographies and wayward, hazy memories of their very existences. Mars, perhaps the most seminal of these bands, was no different, committing to tape just 11 songs in three years. Their performances were equally abbreviated, numbering around 30 shows from 1977-78, with sets often running 20 minutes. But despite the overwhelming sense of fleeting, Mars and No Wave were able to confront, confound, and challenge music and art in ways that may never again be replicated.
While it was the groups themselves who unintentionally conceived and defined No Wave, it was Brian Eno who offered it to the world. His production of the now legendary 1978 compilation, No New York, which included four tracks from Mars, gave exposure to the otherwise obscure New York City-based art form. This year’s career-encompassing Mars LP assembles those tracks, the 5-song Mars EP, and the band’s first and only single. Now available using a separate, forgotten master (the original, used for the identically tracked 78, was damaged in a flood) Mars LP extracts new sounds and frequencies that add depth to nearly every track. These nuances, while subtle, were crucial to the Mars sound experience that was meticulously assembled using equal parts urge and ingenuity.
As with most No Wave bands, the members of Mars arrived having little-to-no musical background. What the band's first recorded moment (“3E," one of the only tracks on Mars LP to bear any sort of traditional song structure) lacks in musical dynamics is offered back in teeth-gnashing rowdiness. “11,000 Volts,” its B-side, is a better predictor of Mars' later work, with its lazy beat and China Burg’s trance-like mumble both unsuccessfully roused by quick scrapes at the guitar. “Helen Fordsdale,” which was inspired by insect sounds, is a driving, odd-rock diatribe strongly reminiscent of songs that Sonic Youth would write and that Damo Suzuki-era Can did write. “Hair Waves” is a discordant piece of noise that takes the listener within the body, if not the soul, of a guitar.
Perhaps the best example of Mars’ manipulation and relationship with sound, "Hair Wave" is layered with frequencies and tempos that pop and echo with tones channeling in and out. Surprisingly, Mars LP offers a diverse range of such sonic explorations. Sumner Crane and China Burg’s guitars are chiefly responsible for warping sound – chugging, shimmering, aggregating into static. The lyrics, replete and simple, are uttered with undead nonchalance. Nancy Arlen’s drumming, swirled into the guitar mix, provides texture and urgency. Most unfaltering and readily discernible is Mark Cunningham’s bass, pacing each track with single, resounding notes.
With this decade’s passing of both Crane and Arlen, it’s particularly poignant to hear these recordings. They, like the provoking music that they created, ended too soon.
Pretty much every review of a live album references the fact that live albums usually suck. If the review is positive, it will go on about how the album in question validates the format and works toward conveying the energy, force, and gravitas of the performer. Sadly, this review is no different. I tried, believe me. But the fact remains, you can spin Otis Redding’s studio efforts all you want. You’ll be rewarded with some of the hottest R&B and soul ever recorded, top notch Stax/Volt production, and the clarity only a closed door and good mics can offer. But you won’t find anything that touches the raw sex, forceful delivery, and balls-out, go-for-broke showmanship presented on Live in Europe.
When you listen to this album, it’s best you turn it up loud. Really fucking loud. You can bet they performed it loud. You can bet Otis was belting these jams out at top volume. You can hear it. You can hear it in the way the band breaks up just a bit in all the right places. You can hear while practically tasting the sweat. Punk rock made a hullabaloo about breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, but Live in Europe proved that long before the safety pins and bondage pants blurred the barriers. Artists like Redding weren’t just obscuring the line; they were arguing it never even existed. This isn’t mere pop music. This is communion between crowd and band, between those baring their soul and those witnessing it. This is testifier and testify-ee mixing it up.
Booker T. and his magnificent MG’s provide the backbone here, their fine tuned playing offering the perfect combination of tightly constructed rhythms and loose, joyful abandon. Takes on the Stones (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) and The Beatles (“Daytripper”) rock, yeah, that’s right, rock harder than the originals, tapping into some sort of primal force that both bands eventually appropriated (my jab isn’t intended to downplay any of the historical or artistic significance of said artists. Otis isn’t bigger than Jesus -- I’m just stating a fact, man).
Of course, Otis’ originals crackle here, too. Opener “Respect” blasts out the door, as the crowd spells out O-T-I-S-R-E-D-D-I-N-G in fevered anticipation. I have this theory that there are plenty of good songs with okay bass lines, but the truly greatest songs are made by the effectiveness of their bass lines, and by that logic, “Respect” is hands-down one of the greatest songs ever written. Otis growls, shouts, and claws his way through the song, his last few stanzas a breathless mess of unleashed aggression. In true Stax style, the band wastes no time breaking into “Can’t Turn You Loose,” which rumbles on the strength of it’s choogling organ and the brisk pace of the snare hits. “I know you think I’m gonna stop now/ I ain’t gonna stop,” Otis barks over the break, and the crowd explodes into a sea of whistles, cheers, and shouts as the band roars back in. “Keep the groove going,” he intones, and the crowd becomes percussion, clapping in time with the steady slam of the band.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” follows, and, shit, I know I’m getting worked up now, but it’s so lovely, so beautiful, so heartbreaking and gorgeous that writing about it feels silly. Dancing about architecture and all that jazz. It’s simply breathtaking. The most hardened of hearts has to soften just a bit as Otis croons over guitarist Steve Cropper’s immaculate guitar-work. Every child who expresses interest in the guitar should be forced to listen to this song over and over again, and have their Guitar World subscriptions revoked, and maybe over time things will begin to change for the better.
The band launches directly into “My Girl.” While a whole bunch of fuss is made of the comparison between the Motown and Stax sounds, Otis’ take on the song shows just how much the two labels benefited from each other. It’s the sweetest thing on the album, and the brass crescendo on the chorus propels the band into a take on Sam Cooke’s classic “Shake.” Here, over an ass-shaking drum beat, Otis gets the crowd gyrating into a frenzy. Side two finds Otis and the MG’s take on the aforementioned Anglo classics, as well as a version of “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” and “These Arms of Mine.” Ever the performer, Otis leads the band through a pile-driving finale with “Try A Little Tenderness,” undoubtedly leaving every knee in the house weak.
The 10 songs on Live in Europe fly by. The band is all business, and before the stunned audience even has a chance to realize what’s happening, Otis and crew are done and gone. This was the last recording Otis released alive, and while every positive review of an album released just before the artists death mentions its eerie status as a career-definer, well, this review is no different.
Depending on who’s using the phrase, “experimental music” can mean just about anything. Critics describe many well-received albums -- Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Deerhunter’s Cryptograms -- as being “experimental” in some form or another. But just as frequently, the adjective bears a negative connotation – it can be used to describe incoherent noise music or even your friend’s embarrassingly self-conscious garage band stylings. But the term shouldn’t be an all-inconclusive musical canopy. To be successful, experimental music, like any type of art, must be internally coherent. Even John Cage abided by his own set of rules.
Enter Mise en Abyme’s Do You Hear The Hum. The Portland, OR-based band's third album is neither as good as the best experimental music nor as bad as the worst. Glimmering with potential, but often eclectic to a fault, Hum frustrates as much as it satisfies. Translated from French, the band’s name refers to the artistic effect of reproducing an image infinitely – as when placing something between two facing mirrors. Their murky, distorted dissonance certainly strives for the Nietzschean abyss of aesthetic conception that only great art can reach, but for the most part Hum stays firmly in the finite here and now.
The album’s high points come when Mise en Abyme keep their egos in check. Opening track “Omphalos” is an infectious, nearly wordless techno exercise that uses a heavy, discordant bassline to compel foot tapping, similar to the best German techno-pop. Glass-shattering guitar riffs, hip-hop inspired scratches, and looped clips generate a memorable rhythmic density, but the song doesn’t try to be anything more than a catchy, if slightly weird, blurb of electronica. At this, it succeeds brilliantly.
On “Tourist,” the band again uses a mangled bassline melody as the foundation for a captivating resonance. Eschewing vocals, Mise en Abyme realize a level of enigmatic complexity akin to Portishead; however, like “Omphalos,” "Tourist" is an experiment only in a specific genre. A dark anthem for those who prefer shadowy alleys to brightly lit streets, it’s also a song that you need to close your eyes to listen to, one that demands your full attention. Guitar dalliances float above drums and spooky minor notes. It’s music as haunting and suggestive as a nightmare.
If only Mise en Abyme showed restraint throughout the whole album. What the band needs is what Danish film director Lars Von Trier provided fellow director Jorgan Leith in the movie The Five Obstructions: namely, well, obstructions. Great art, whatever the medium, requires restrictions. Too often, Mise en Abyme forgo the internal coherency of “Omphalos” and “Tourist” for haphazard cross-genre mash-ups. In these instances, the band mistakes novelty for artistry. Experimentalism doesn’t give musicians license to be sloppy.
“Wool Gathering” exemplifies this. The song begins as a soft, reflective ballad and then devolves into clanging, techno disharmony. In “Hypnagogue,” a forgettable pop-techno soundtrack plays beneath half-spoken, half-sung vocals that sound like a bad Nick Cave impersonation. The band throws in a horde of random, unidentifiable sounds, but this paltry attempt at abstraction only makes the song’s failings more obvious. The song's lyrics are the self-aware, faux-symbolist poetry of a college freshman; disconnected phrases such as “collapsing with the weight of language” and “towering roosters swallow houses” are less profound than distractingly indulgent. Mise en Abyme are better when they let their music do the talking.
“Extruder,” the second-to-last track, reveals another problem with Hum: the sheer annoyance factor. Again, the lyrics are little more than a list of images (“he pulls down on your leather umbrella”), and while this work's on some albums, such as Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, in Hum's case it just grates Coupled with the song’s distorted, metallic beat, listening to "Extruder" is like flying in coach with a screaming baby next to you.
Mise en Abyme clearly have talent, but they are too often arty for their own good. Because of this, Do You Hear the Hum mingles in mediocrity when it could have resided in the sublime. There are few songs that jump out at you, but they only solidify the album as a moody, messy blob, offset by scattered highlights. The songs don’t flow organically because Mise en Abyme try to create abstract music for every musical taste. Instead of doing one genre well, they do many genres tolerably, but the whole point of experimental music is that it will only appeal to a small section of listeners. Abstract music can’t be a populist art. As a result, Hum is an experiment with a failed hypothesis. Mise en Abyme need to decide who they want to be and who they want their audience to be before they will ever become more than fledgling potential.
I spent years treating my NY/NJ straight-edge hardcore roots like a zit that lingered in the middle of my nose, even as I desperately tried to leave my teens behind. From 1988 to around 1993, it wasn't just the music I listened to -- it was my life. Then I got to college and learned a couple of contextual details about the music I loved. Straight-edge hardcore was, in the grand scheme of things, over and done with when Minor Threat broke up in 1985, and the New York scene I'd come up in was generally viewed as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys with an overabundance of tough-guy posing and a shortfall in musical inventiveness. As I became steeped in earlier, more groundbreaking generations of punk rock, as well as more mind-broadening genres such as funk, reggae, and jazz, I found myself starting to sell off, hide, or try to explain away my Agnostic Front, Sick of It All, and Youth of Today records.
What a pretentious douche-clown I was. I should have stood proudly by my wild-eyed, youthful passion for hardcore, and am belatedly doing so now. Sure, the scene eventually became extremely narrow-minded and formulaic. But in its heyday, New York hardcore was every bit as vital and combustive as any other punk era. Its songs may have been a bit too preachy and specific to the time to warrant inclusion on, say, a Rhino punk box, but to the kids who heard it at the time, the music had a life-changing impact.
No single hardcore band of the late-’80s captured our imagination and spirit as profoundly as Gorilla Biscuits. Their sole album Start Today hit me and my friends with such a wallop that we listened to nothing else for six months after its release -- except maybe albums we'd heard might sound like it. From the opening trumpet line, heralding the impending guitar blast of “New Direction,” to the gloriously melodic choruses, to the title track's harmonica solo -- Hardcore Harmonica Solo!!! -- Start Today sounded like nothing we'd ever heard before.
Perhaps the album's most distinguishing feature was its overwhelming positivity, which was evident throughout, despite the tense, rapidly shouted verses and crunchy, muscular-but-never-harsh guitars. While the vocals alternated between rhythmic barking and sing-songy refrains, singer Anthony “Civ” Civocelli never sounded scoldingly angry (as Ian MacKaye certainly did in Minor Threat), overly preachy (like Ray Cappo in Youth of Today), or violent-natured (as Raybeez of Warzone occasionally came off). Even as a teen, I found it ironic that our parents had strong reservations about us listening to such aggressive-sounding music when, in fact, its lyrical content was so clearly constructive, especially when compared to vapid pop hits of the era like -- what was big in ’89? Milli Vanilli? The Escape Club? Roxette?
The songs covered a wide range of topics, all relating to self-improvement through very specific means: not being channel-surfing couch potatoes, shunning racists, showing gratitude and appreciation to our friends, expressing ourselves in ways that avoid insulting others ("I can't believe the things we say/ A cutting word can ruin days!”), reserving judgment until we hear all sides to a story, and going veggie out of affection for our pets (“My true compassion is for all living things/ And not just the ones that are cute!”). Sure, you can say these sound like sentiments from “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” but to a group of teenagers surrounded by a pop culture intent on selling us one thing or another, it meant a lot to hear songs that seemed sincerely intended to help us understand the world we lived in and navigate it in ways we could be proud of.
My friends and I were lucky enough to catch Gorilla Biscuits in 1990, and it was a day I'll never forget. They played just about every song in their arsenal, and it was one of the most fun shows I've ever seen. They had a new song, “Distance,” an impressive pop-leaning tune that explored some interesting lyrical terrain, but was unfortunately never recorded. The demo versions circulating the internet these days remain our only taste of the fruitful direction the band might have gone if they'd held it together a little longer. They started to crumble in 1990 when songwriter/guitarist Walter Schreifels formed Quicksand, a side project that soon became a full-time gig and scored a few minor alternative-rock-era hits. The rest of the band reformed in the mid-’90s under the moniker Civ, which also had a couple of chart hits (one of which was in a Nissan ad), but it just wasn't the same.
As it stands, along with an ’87 demo 7-inch and an early EP, Start Today is the official document of the era-defining inspiration that was Gorilla Biscuits. It's only 20 minutes long, but it stands the test of time, and I'm no longer ashamed to admit it.
2008: The Lines - Memory Span
There were no slow news days for the music media in the 1970s. The stories seemed to write themselves: overdoses, self-imposed exiles, curses of popular culture on prime-time television, scenes conceived from nothing. And those stories said nothing of the music itself, which was being torn to shreds and rewritten on every dirty street corner from Berlin to Los Angeles. That in mind, when listening to the gruff -- though well-executed -- guitar pop of The Lines (not to be confused with the more recent Wolverhampton band of the same name), it’s no wonder the band flew under the radar. Lacking the rhythmic urge of The Jam, the three-chord absurdity of The Kinks, the lyrical quips of Buzzcocks, and any sort of punk ferocity, The Lines were so obscured from radio success that any semblance of cool, rebellion, or, in spite of themselves, fame entirely eluded them. Yet as their selected, career compilation Memory Span attests, The Lines were a solid band.
Expertly sequenced, Memory Span is a depiction of growth. In fine detail, it sketches The Lines as they transform from a punky garage band to purveyors of urgent, unpredictable rock music drenched in atmospherics and elaborate funk rhythms. The compilation begins with a collection of early singles that, despite their scrappy under-production, ring with potential. With sly riffing, melodic vocals, and bounding beats, songs like “White Night,” “Not Through Windows,” and “Uneasy Affair” toggle between off-kilter power and budding poetics. Still, it isn’t until The Lines abandon traditional song structures on their 1980 singles that they truly discover their element. “Nerve Pylon” displays a rich melodic range that hearkens back to such pop-rock luminaries as The Left Banke and The Zombies. “Over the Brow” trumps everything before it with a maniacal melding of Middle Eastern melodies, droning brass, and a dub-style rhythmic pulse. These songs, glistening with catchiness and intrigue, set the tone for the remainder of the compilation, which includes high points “Part II” and “Old Town.” The former possesses a minimalist, head-trip groove that echo-plays with distant guitar squelches. “Old Town” is Memory Span’s most rhythmically dynamic track in its melding of tribal beats with a slow, dooming dirge.
As interesting as Memory Span's sonic emergence is, the album still has a few growing pains. “Background,” with its bubbling, bounding backbeat, fails to ignite, and “House of Cracks” is an overwrought take on the devices that make so many of The Lines’ 1980s output work. Yet to dissect this compilation track for track would be missing the point. Instead, if Memory Span is digested as a documentary, a log of what went right and wrong in the lifetime of a wholly under-regarded band, then you’re sure to be rewarded.