Thursday, October 17, 2019
Brontez Purnell + Jason Kendig - He Never Knew What Kissed Him
Brontez Purnell once asked me if it was still affordable to live in Long Beach. He started to describe a fantasy about retiring there, the foggy mornings and dancing at night, but drifted off mid-sentence, clearly lost in the daydream, in the vision of this person there next to him. I understood his jitters and the way he sank into them. It was like a fever. You just have to wait it out.
For a long time I could only think of two great songs about this experience. The first is "Intertube Tomorrow" by the Frumpies. "East coast/west coast/I think I hate them both/Another day/It's always two thousand miles away from someone/I care about." So much disappointment, a sense of something unsolvable, of wanting a miracle technology to solve the distance. The halting delivery of the lyrics, the notes held too long, all tells the story without needing words in this way.
The song itself tells the same story, running past you, breathless and precise. There's this one bell sound, I think you can make it with a guitar, something you hear in "For What It's Worth" or "Nowhere Man." When it appears in "Intertube Tomorrow" it feels nostalgic but also cuts through with this awful presentness.
The other one I think about is "West Coast Love Affair" by Unrest. This song is all warmth and closeness. That first little descending string of notes tugs you up next to the speaker. In that intimacy, the strain is just apparent in their singing, but the promise of a reunion, the steady, oath-like repetition, keeps everything hopeful. The notes grow closer and closer together, the song doesn't get faster but it feels like a heart beat quickening.
"He Never Knew What Kissed Him" stands between these two songs. Reverent, dismayed, wistful, far-seeing. Feverish. Brontez sings with such understanding, the plainness of a line like "it's a mistake/my darling/but it's okay/my darling" feels revelatory. The organ notes pull with an identical energy to "West Coast Love Affair," the feeling of sinking. It's unavoidable but without despair. There's also a timelessness, sounds that feel lifted from the droney, delicate tapestry of forgotten 60s records but a language that could only live in these days.
The song is full of surprises, compressing months of wondering and daydreaming: the surprise of a postcard, the sting of an unanswered phone call, the circled date on the calendar with scribbled flight information. In the New Yorker in 2013 I read that one of the primary, debilitating effects of sleep depravation is that it suppresses the ability to discern from the past and the present. "In a sleep-deprived brain," a scientist explained, "there is only an eternal present." That is how this song makes me feel. The ache of distance, the anger at ineffective technologies and the thrill of pending reunion all live so vividly in the song that for 134 seconds I am pinned outside an empty mailbox, standing in an airport with a bundle of flowers I couldn't really afford, listening to voicemails over and over and over. Brontez absorbed all those moments and laid them bare, adding this supremely generous brush of hope, making "Never Knew" one of the truest and kindest songs I've ever heard.
Monday, September 2, 2019
Judee Sill - "Sunnyside Up Luck"
Judee Sill released two records during her lifetime - 1971's Judee Sill and 1973's Heart Food. There's a special, easily-shared reverence for these songs by people who know them. Tara Jane O'Neil once told me she'd been covering "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" live because she loves it so much, and gets so much joy out of singing it. But she would only play it overseas, where people were less likely to know the original and hold her's up against it. Vicki McClure, a friend and collaborator of Sill's, said in an interview, "Judee's songs have always been a great source of comfort to me." On one tour, driving from San Diego to Tucson, we played both CDs in a row, no one speaking a word across 140 minutes of the albums and bonus tracks. And then remained silent still until the next bathroom stop, when our minds were re-set enough by the racks of candy and noise of gas pumping to get back to normal.
On that same tour, I made a controversial statement that I "didn't like music about christianity, and didn't like music about drugs but Sill's music is so special I don't notice or care." That declarative attitude and starkly drawn line was so annoying to Ariel he didn't talk to me for the rest of the tour, who could blame him? And though I don't stand by that statement I do think it makes clear something special about her songs. Sill had an especially tough path in her short life, her wikipedia biography lists more profoundly sad experiences than years lived, including homelessness, addiction, prison time, abusive home life, and neglect. The songs are never explicit about these traumas, but they lurk in there for sure. By contrast, her yearning for redemption is right at the surface, and more importantly, infinitely approachable. In "The Phoenix," she sings, "Ever since a long time ago/I tried to let my feelings show/I'd like to think I'm being sincere but I'll never know." It comes from a very dark, exposed place, and the shifts that brought her to it are maybe tough to relate to for most listeners. But the precise, crystalline result of them, evidenced in these couple vulnerable lines, are accessible to anyone. Art Johnson, who played guitar with Sill, said this very clearly in an essay about her: "it was straight from her heart to yours, whoever you may be."
The songs were also inviting in a similar way as the lyrics. Judee Sill worked well with session musicians, and string quartets, horn sections, and wide-grinning drummers augment a lot of her arrangements. There's a way that could feel a product of the era, the way the Emitt Rhodes and Nick Drake records always feel like there's one too many instruments. But Sill pieced things together so carefully, sometimes holding the rest of the band until the end of songs, or backing off herself and letting them carry the melody. I've always tended towards her emptier songs, the piano/voice closeness of "When The Bridegroom Comes" or the emptiness of "Abracadabra" (until the coda I guess) but I can get carried away by the dense ones too.
"Things Are Looking Up," from her unreleased third LP, is one of her most rollicking and lush songs. It's a half step from Carole King/Brill Building pop radio style, you can almost picture Judee swaying from side to side, eyes half closed, lip synching on the Johnny Carson show. It makes a lot of sense, the lyrics have a delight to them, love for the moon and sky. Her darkness is unescapable, of course—"things are looking up/things are finally looking up" signals a lot without actually saying it. But she "can't quit grinning since the lightning struck" which is such a magical way to talk about new love.
There's a less magical but very sweet list of dares she would take to spend time with this new love: "I would scale the steepest peak with you/Just to be by your side/I would dive through hoops of fire/Or cross Niagara on a real live wire." She also offers to "Brave the open sea with you" and somehow this feels the most fitting in the song, as she looks up at the stars and wonders at the world. The shared isolation and wide view offered by time in a boat makes a perfect setting for these reflections.
Songs for this third record were recorded by Bill Plummer in 1974 but never released during her lifetime. A two CD set, Dreams Come True, came out in 2005 with the complete session, along with demos and home recordings. One of these home recordings was "Sunny Side Up Luck," a demo version of "Things Are Looking Up" that's so profoundly weird and hazy it took me years to absorb the connection between the two recordings.
"Sunny Side Up Luck" is driven by seasick harmonium, Sill's nimble fingers picking out a sturdy melody that feels like the Velvet Underground's "Hey Mr. Rain" but also has a clipped repetition that feels like some 8-bit mind numbing. A few guitar sounds appear and submerge like a lazy dolphin or a dickish roommate wandering in and out of the kitchen with a crummy acoustic guitar on his hip. The "Brave the open sea" line from the finished version of the song is expanded here to the entire song, the metaphor extended to include riptide and a lighthouse, and some really specific sailing language revealed: "Over swells we're flying/We go slicing through the surge and we curl the foam... Hear the engines humming/As we're smoothly making knots through the eventide." Both songs share the strangely specific lines, "I would rise through raging water/And get the bends and have to send for a doctor." It shouldn't work, it's too mundane and direct to act as a metaphor or connote any urgency. Even on a level of pure sound, the collected syllables are simply too blunt to sing. But of any part of either song, it's the one that settles deepest into my brain. She's a magician.
The other part of "Sunny Side Up Luck" that I cling to is at the very end where she's repeating the lines, "You bring me sunny side up luck" and laughs a bit, and trying to stifle it, ends up laughing again. It's so rewarding to hear her laughter, such an unabashed glee. It's a very welcome counterbalance to the desperate, unresolved staring of "The Phoenix."
Dreams Come True is an excellent collection, I maybe have spent more time with it than with either of the LPs. She obviously was continuing to grow as a songwriter, and it's part of the tragedy of her short life. I was also lucky to have heard the songs before Dreams Come True came out, via Bob Claster's Judee Sill website. A friend emailed me the link, for a long time it was the only email in my Jackpot Records email account, because I wasn't in front of a computer enough to actually use it, but it was worth it for that one kind email. Over the years, Claster had collected cassettes of Sill's work, and decided to make them all available through his website. The release of Dreams Come True complicated this generosity, and at some point I went looking for it and it was gone. Here's the internet archive version of it [LINK]. Listening to the remastered Dreams Come True, I sometimes miss the unsweetened versions of these songs from the website.
I went looking again todau, and found Bob Claster's new website, which saved a bunch of the text and some of the tracks from the original site, you can find it HERE. Both sites share this explanation of where all these songs came from:
I hope you all enjoy these with my compliments. I've gotten quite a bit of email asking me my involvement with Judee Sill and her music, and here's the story. Back in 1991, I had the idea of putting together a one-hour radio documentary about her for NPR, which I eventually abandoned. Many people have asked me why I abandoned it, and here's the short answer:The more investigation I did, the more I realized that the best memorial possible to Judee Sill is her songs. It's a life that's frustrating to learn about in many ways, characterized by many strokes of just plain stupid bad luck, with some foolish decisions and carelessness thrown in for good measure. So, I think it's probably better left undone. She wrote some amazing songs, and let's enjoy them and leave it at that.
I've been thinking about this a lot. I like stories so much, and I devoured the texts I could find about Judee Sill in the CD reissues or whatever I could find online. People loved her, loved working with her, and they're eager to share their memories, I don't know that I can think of another artist who's made such a specific mark on people. But when I want to talk about Judee Sill, I have a really difficult time doing anything but playing the records for people. The stories about her sex work, bank robberies, or sleeping in her car feel vulgar and unacceptable in the face of these songs. Again, I'm not sure I can think of another artist who makes me feel like this. Which is maybe best articulated by the memory of sitting silently with a bunch of boys who were babies when Sill died, the shared isolation and perspective of time in a van, absorbing these songs like sunlight, like love.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Amps for Christ - Pure Hammond
"My friend just put out a 7" by one of the guys from Man is the Bastard, it's called Amps For Christ. But don't freak out, I'm pretty sure it's not Christian." - K. Mack, 1997.
And how could it be? Man Is the Bastard were such a pure, obliterating force. Their records marked the bleak, singular endpoint on a path of metal, industrial, and hardcore musics, this far edge of precise, destructive sound. I don't think there's another band that has such a profound completeness. The records look like they sound, the vocals feel identical to what the lyrics mean, even the blunt clarity of speaking the band name feels the same as hearing one of their songs. A grueling bassline usually framed their songs, a decisive arrangement of notes, a rhythmic unevenness matched by the drums. The five syllables of MAN-IS-THE-BAS-TARD lurched in the exact same way. There is no room for faith or fealty in this project.
When I was eighteen I heard the words "ETERNAL WAR AGAINST THE DICKS IS ALL WE CAN RESPECT" at the end of their song "Remember Thy Creator." Written out, it seems kind of triumphant and defiant. But when you heard it screamed, each word crisp and venomous, it betrays the loneliness of this position. It's heartbreaking. It's also one of the more alienating MITB songs, absent bass and drums, leaving only the gurgling, vibrating electronic sounds that normally lurk between notes on their other records. Sustained notes on an organ, somewhere between a horror movie soundtrack and a church service, loom over the whole thing. The composition is credited to Henry Barnes (or as the liner notes read, "BARNES"), one of the core members of Man Is the Bastard, alongside Eric Wood. In a 2008 interview, Wood recalled how he met Barnes: "Around town, he was known for being this weird guy who built bikes out of other bikes. That was his thing: making new things from neglected other things." Barnes was the one who started Amps For Christ.
The name seemed suspect to me, but I was excited to hear this 7", and the listed instrumentation - "strings" and "electronics" seemed like a natural trajectory out of his work in MITB. It was not. Notes tumbled out of guitars with an almost carefree, front-porch/campfire feeling. Other songs buzzed warmly like an electric sitar. But at the center was "Pure Hammond," an entirely electronic composition, drones and frequencies unlike the rest of the record, unlike the rest of the records in the world.
"Pure Hammond" is a devotional song. It's weighty, grounded by a sequence of low organ chords that make my ribcage tremble. A pair of single-note melodies skate atop these chords, refusing to match each other but somehow never jarring. One is slightly more assertive, it reminds me of a child: unable to sit still, full of questions, full of faith in the answers it's given. The other voice moves more slowly, is more used to the ritual. I'm always awed by its restraint, especially halfway through the song when the former grows more insistent, jumping octaves and pleading. There is a moment where it all peaks, the notes grow so high and needy I can feel myself reaching out to assure them. The moment stretches, breathless and pained, when a third voice lasers through the whole song, a definitive, wise blast of sound. It can feel overpowering, but it can also feel fortifying. I generally don't listen to music at high volumes, but in this moment of truth I almost always push it as loud as I can bear. I want it all.
I've never tried to figure out what Henry Barnes's relationship is to Christianity. The 7" with "Pure Hammond" comes with an insert, one side of which is at the top of this text, the other at the bottom. It's the right amount of opaque, I think, and there's something very sweet about the way it loops back again to making a song, a record. And I like reading "Love >> Hate." "ETERNAL WAR" is a valid path, I think, and maybe a necessary one. But I appreciate the acknowledgement of some who don't bow as low, too, and for sure the wordless truth of "Pure Hammond."
Friday, July 19, 2019
At the age of 16, this photo changed everything for me. It was included in the booklet for Strategies Against Architecture II, the 2CD compilation of Einsturzende Neubauten tracks from 1984-1990. I borrowed the CDs from a friend at school mostly because I recognized the band's logo from tattoos on Henry Rollins and Jon Schoen.
The comp opens with the tremendously unfriendly "abfackeln!" which loops a single note from a broken keyboard like an upstairs neighbor incessantly and methodically bouncing a ball above your bed. This thump is the only structure in a song that's otherwise clattering shards of metal, microphones sweating above bonfires, guitars played with powerdrills, and a single voice shouting irregularly in German, "free our souls of mould!" (as translated in the liner notes). I really wanted to like this music.
In high school most of my friends were into death metal, they practiced for hours and were fixated on the kind of superhuman virtuosity practiced by Bill Steer or Paul Masvidal. I knew I could never catch up: always distracted, always unwilling to sit and do the work. By sophomore year I couldn't really play music with any of them anymore, even when it was just joke covers of Biohazard songs or whatever. I needed another way to think of making music.
Bjorn Copeland talks about this in the Black Dice oral history on Know Wave: "I knew about music but I had no idea how to do it." It's not included in the final piece, but during that interview, he talked about ways he tried to short circuit his late start: "I had never played a guitar before. I wanted to be in a band but I was always like, 'if I get a guitar it’s going to be obvious to people that I don’t know how to fucking play it.' Maybe I should get a dulcimer, you know? Thinking of every other instrument. I remember Eric trying to brainstorm with me: these only have a couple of strings on them and you could maybe make it work."
I knew exactly what he meant, and so the photo of F.M. Einheit nonchalantly perverting the shopping cart opened a lot of doors in my mind in terms of what was possible in music, and what was required. Almost immediately after seeing it, I started a band with all found percussion, and the time I spent walking to and from school became a hunt through dumpsters and parking lots for new instruments. The basement at my mom's house filled with discarded car parts, appliances, paint buckets half full of broken glass, table legs, and the shopping cart we stole from a liquor store. We practiced every week, played three shows total, and mostly made tapes with hand drawn covers. At the end of one of them, you can hear my mom yelling down the stairs: "there better not be anything getting broken down there that's not supposed to get broken!"
I haven't listened back to those tapes in years, but I'm certain they're not 1/10th as upsetting as a song like "abfackeln!" We did a lot of yelling, but the music mostly marches along with a straightforwardness that took more from the punk records we liked than the industrial music we were trying to get into. We thought about things like verses and choruses, counted off "1-2-3-4" at the beginnings of songs. There was none of that on Strategies Against Architecture. This music felt like it came from a profoundly different place and era. What could we even fathom about the Berlin Wall, or cities full of new buildings, reconstruction and legacies of failed empire? The band was answering questions we never could've thought to ask. Although they freed us from learning chords or mastering the double bass pedal, Einsturzende Neubauten still had to sit and do the work, demonstrating that dismantling also requires patience and consideration.
The collection ends with a punchline, a 28 second commercial for Jordache jeans that's all badly timed string bends, a bassline pumped in from the wrong studio, the brand name whispered like an awkward dad at the department store, unsure if he's pronouncing the thing his kids asked for correctly. It's also precise, demanding the commitment and labor of all five members. Even "Bildbeschreibung," the shopping-cart jam that inspired our entire band-concept, was sophisticated and broken in a way that we couldn't dare approach. Instead I found it easier to consider them terror artists, to visualize wrecking balls and power sanders whenever I listened.
It took me a couple of years to find my own copy of Strategies Against Architecture, but the record store near my house had a cassette copy of Neubaten's 1989 LP, Haus der Luege. It was a surprise, propulsive and metronomed. I could recognize the pre-programmed sounds of the same inexpensive keyboards we could access, and was shocked by the dancefloor throb of "Feurio!" It had that driving beat that made me wary of Wax Trax and Nettwerk—we were not interested in dancing. Still, I loved Haus's spoken prologue, with its intermittent wall of noise and that one line "auf und ab und ab und auf" which was somehow the most abrasive and harsh moment on the record. And "Ein Stuhl In Der Hölle," all foot-stomps and folk intonations, demonstrating the potential for distemper and hostility in any context. I quickly learned to stop listening to the tape on the walk to school because I would get to homeroom during the snarl of the title track and immediately try to pick a fight, it riled me so completely.
While it had obviously developed, the music still felt so otherworldly and distant, from another time. There was no way these people were walking the same earth as us. But just a year later, Einsturzende Neubauten put out a new record, Tabula Rasa. We were all young and wide-eyed, hadn't yet learned the only-like-the-early-shit cliche, and we were PSYCHED. It was so cool that they were still a band! We snapped up copies of the CD and dedicated ourselves to listening. It was a struggle. The song that I struggled with the most with was called "Blume." We didn't talk about it for a long time, then Sachin finally nailed it. "It sounds like the music they play at the end of an NPR segment." He wasn't even being mean, he was just trying to find a way to understand it. When I moved away from home the next year, Tabula Rasa remained on the shelf in my childhood bedroom. It was for grownups.
This week I did the math and learned that the members of Einsturzende Neubauten were between 28 and 36 years old when they released Tabula Rasa. Yes, it had also been 13 years since they formed the group, but they weren't quite the elder statesmen I imagined when I played the CD as a high school junior. I was curious to hear how the record sounded now:
It's pretty good! The reference point I keep returning to is Paul Simon's Graceland or Rhythm of the Saints. There's so much musicianship, a truly thorough understanding of composition. I'm convinced there are sounds you can't really hear throughout the record that psychically enhance the sound. There's a profound confidence, once again everyone in the band happily defers to the totality of the song. I am especially charmed by the artifice of chance operations shown in the music video with all the objects dropped and tossed, particularly from 4:15 on. There's also a slightly unsettling globalization on view. The vocalizations that show the influence of American rap music, the dignified hop of an English court dance. It's cut out of this video version but the album version of this song opens with Bargeld uneasily inflecting the oscillating force of a muezzin's call to prayer.
I am curious about how this video was made. Did someone at Elektra think this would get played on MTV? Or even on 120 Minutes? I tried to imagine myself up late on a Sunday night, seeing this video sandwiched between The Lemonheads and Blur. If I had no knowledge of the band, would it have caught me? I fear it wouldn't have stood out at all, the quick cuts and lipsync performance so typical. But if I'd stayed long enough to see the percussion setups, the springs and rusty sheets, I probably would have needed to see more. It wasn't the visceral, petulant thrill of the shopping cart, but it looked weird. Truly weird, not at all performative. It would've stood out. And that would've kept me hooked long enough to see the moment at 3:42 where F.M. Einheit walks away from the camera and you can see he's wearing a Metallica shirt. Which is so unexpected I believe it would've won me over forever.
Monday, July 15, 2019
Poison Idea - Think Twice
In winter 2000, Amy and I organized a concert for All Scars, who were on a month long tour. 17 Nautical Miles had just closed, and Portland Robot Steakhouse wasn't open yet. It was a weird time for D.I.Y. shows in Portland, and we ended up putting the show on at Reed College, in that funny ski-lodge looking building. For some reason we couldn't get any money from the school, so we set up a table at the door to charge non-students $5. I remember Elliott Smith and Joanna Bolme showed up and were surprised and a little scandalized that the show wasn't free but were very gracious about paying.
The All Scars got to town early, and hung out for a couple days. We were close with Chuck Bettis, but it was the first time I had spent any time with Dug Birdzell and Jerry Busher, who were both a touch older than us and had a lot of stories about bands we didn't get to see and moments we missed out on. At one point, Jerry said something like, "this is a big deal for the two of us - Dug and I have never played a show in Portland before." He went on to explain that Fidelity Jones had a show booked in Portland in 1988 or 89, but the guys in Poison Idea found out they were on Dischord and got them blacklisted. He told the story with a laugh, but I felt awkward and sad.
When I moved to Portland, I didn't like Poison Idea. In high school I'd bought an Alchemy Records sampler with two of their metal-ish songs and they didn't stand out among the Melvins and Neurosis songs that anchored the record. Then I'd seen their "Ian MacKaye" record cover and wrote them off as bullies, clowns. A couple of years later, working at the record store, I was sent home with a copy of "Darby Crash Rides Again" and quickly fell in love with Pig Champion's guitar style. It's hard to articulate what's special about it - he plays a lot of power chords and it's never weird but there's a perfect balance of smoothness and force to it, he pounds and hacks and will hammer the same riff for an entire song relentlessly, but he also has that kind of boneless strum you'd hear on an Unrest record. He's always in the right spot, precise and on-time. He knows how to use feedback. The songs all sound distinct.
But the thing that really caught me about Poison Idea was the lyrics. They were vicious, pushed to the edge: "Look in my heart/see the pain/look in my mind/see the hate/it's pure" or "This is my life/this is my curse/this is my headache/it's getting worse" or "The next thing you hear might be an atomic blast." Or my very favorite, from "Think Twice" the song linked above: "There's one way out and it's not up." I was not surprised or shocked by the nihilism, but I was stunned by how ruthless they were. There was no daylight on these records, no inspiration. Or if it was there, it was there to be mocked, like the character affected in "Reggae (I Hate)."
There was one song on the record that felt like it was at least looking forward to something. In "Castration," Jerry yells at an abusive husband, "they're planning against you and you don't even know." The final lines of the song are sung almost with a smile on his face: "You think you're so macho/your girlfriend's waiting for you with a broken bottle." It hit me hard at a time when I was souring on hardcore because of the treatment of women, from "Jealous Again" to "Banana Nut Cake," it was all so discouraging and hateful. "Castration" felt like a shocking turn, and differentiated Poison Idea from every other hardcore band I could think of. So despite my early dismissal, by the time the All Scars came to Portland, I considered Poison Idea one of my favorite bands.
Jerry A came into the record store regularly. He was always very kind; I made him sign my copy of "Dutch Courage" and he gave me Poison Idea shirts pretty much every time they made a new batch. I asked him why there wasn't a studio version of "Spy" and he explained the different pressings of "Pick Your King" to me with no end of patience. We even tried to organize a basement show for Poison Idea and Emergency but every house we asked had too many weird conditions and lineup demands it just never worked out. So I felt like we were friends and I felt comfortable asking him about the Fidelity Jones story. "Shit, yeah," he confirmed. "But that was all Tom - he just hated Dischord, thought they were such hypocrites."
I knew from other stories Jerry told me about the Misfits or the Smiths or Devo that he and Tom were serious fans of the stuff they liked, obsessive and emotionally invested in a way that I relate to. Over these last 18 or 19 years since we had that conversation I've thought about it a lot and I think these strong feelings come from strong feelings. That is, Tom's hatred of Dischord probably comes from a love of Dischord, or at least closeness. The observations in Minor Threat songs are the same as those in Poison Idea records - adults have broken this world. There's an outrage surrounding that observation, and a further outrage surrounding the acknowledgement of powerlessness to fix it. But Poison Idea looked down while Minor Threat looked up. It's not that big a difference, really, but I can imagine it felt like a profound betrayal for Tom.
Jerry wandered around the store for awhile after we talked about Fidelity Jones. It was tenser than I expected, and I couldn't think of a way to repair it. Eventually he said, "hey, if you talk to your friends, tell them I'm sorry about that" and ducked out the door.
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Kate + Anna McGarrigle - Heartbeats Accelerating
Been thinking a lot about context lately, about the expectations and immediate history that surround a record. What does it do to the songs once all that stuff has passed? I remember first hearing Big Pun (who at the time went by Big Dog Punisher) on Fat Joe's second LP. He was menacing and bloodthirsty, and fit right in with Joe's violence. Which felt totally normal, a stop on the trajectory laid out by that Method Man/Raekwon interlude, any Kool G Rap song, or "stab your brain with your nose bone." When "I'm Not a Player" came out I remember thinking it was so funny and unexpected, a delightful turn of persona. But that became the persona! And now the scary lyrics are the outliers, the surprise. People don't really even believe them.
Or I always bound the late 70s Factory Records bands together, picking up records by, like, A Certain Ratio and Section 25 as I wore out the Joy Division ones. That wasn't an unusual position; here's a 1982 review of The Plateau Phase by Crispy Ambulance that's just brutal: "Slavish imitation of Joy Division doth not good music make. All the trade-marks are there—relentless inverted drumming, ominous bass lines, dramatic flanged guitar, bleak synth washes and a lone desperate voice." I liked the sharp edges and haunted vocals of "Deaf" by Crispy Ambulance a lot, but thought The Plateau Phase was too erratic and unfocused, every song too long. I resold the LP just a year after buying it, but heard it recently by accident and was knocked over by its totality. It's an epic, indivisible piece, it feels like a movie. Of course there was no "Transmission" to play at our living room dance parties, no "Colony" to startle a mixtape tracklist. It didn't work like a Joy Division record because it isn't one. I wonder if the guy who wrote that mean review ever heard The Plateau Phase again and reached a new way to think about it.
My parents played Kate + Anna McGarrigle a ton when we were kids. Those first two LPs just all the time. Jordana could do a hilariously mean impression of the slight vocal tremolo during "Heart Like a Wheel" from a very young age. The songs were intimate and conversational, they sang "you" and "me" and "tell my sister/to tell my mother" so regularly that they quickly felt like people you knew. The songs also felt like they belonged to everyone. We went to a lot of folk festivals when I was a kid and someone would always end up singing "Foolish You" or "Come a Long Way." Like the end of the night when anyone who was still around and had an instrument at hand would make it to the stage to play along, the audience singing as loud as the people with mics.
The other record we heard a lot during that time was Loudon Wainwright's Attempted Mustache, particularly "The Swimming Song." Wainwright, we knew, was married to and divorced from Kate McGarrigle, and there was a bitterness to the McGarrigles' version of "The Swimming Song" which you might not recognize until two songs later when you heard Kate sing "Go, leave/She's better than me/Or at least she is stronger/She will make it last longer/That's nice for you." That song is the least ornamented on the record, and you can hear her fingertips raise and settle on the guitar strings, the deep humanity and age of the instrument itself.
"Heartbeats Accelerating" came out on the 1990 Kate + Anna McGarrigle LP of the same name. It had been eight years since their last record, and obviously was entering a different world than the one that had preceded it. My earliest memories of the song are hearing it in my mom's first apartment after my parents divorced. The McGarrigles' voices are accompanied here by synthesizers, not acoustic guitars. There are accents from accordion but they're fragmented and snapped in with a precision that feels more like samples. The sisters sing the way we're used to hearing them, but the tremolo feels spectral, their voices powerful but sounding like they're sinking down from the attic, or calling from across the woods. It's scary and exquisite, making incredible use of the negative, inhuman connotations of keyboards to create a haunting distance. "Love, love where can you be?" they implore, "Are you out there looking for me?" It's so far from the conversational admissions of "Go Leave" or "Heart Like a Wheel."
A Los Angeles Times review from 1991 sets this transformation in a trajectory laid by Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega, mentioning the record's "atmospheric production touches and rhythmic embellishments." The New York Times described this decision as "a bold and successful acknowledgment of contemporary developments by introducing computerized elements into their music." Both reviews make really resonant observations about the record: "It is an overridingly dark and ghostly album" and "The record's special achievement is its suggestion of the physical and psychic space where that question reverberates and assumes a metaphysical weight." But both reviews ultimately consider the addition of keyboards to be a product of the era, and not fundamental to the songs. For the LA Times:
"There's nothing on 'Heartbeats Accelerating' that couldn't be sung in a parlor, after all. But the loneliness and chill in the songs might make that parlor audience want to throw an extra log or two on the hearth."
and the NY Times conclusion is even more airy and romanticized:
"one is transported northward to a barely furnished house on a chilly Canadian night... sitting side by side in rocking chairs, in front of a small fire crackling in the hearth, two women do needlework."
I like that they both involve fire, acknowledge coldness. But I feel like it's so reductive. The songs on this record, and in particular, "Heartbeats Accelerating" do something that none of their other songs have ever done. For a group that's lauded for their honesty and openness, there's something more vulnerable about this song than anything they did, a clearer version of the human experience that's entirely reliant on the synthetic distance created by the instrumentation. To frame it as a product of the era, a result of the success of "Book of Dreams" or "Don't Give Up" ignores the decisions made by the McGarrigles, their understanding of what these songs needed.
The same year that Heartbeats Accelerating was released, there was a television special about the McGarrigles that included this clip of them playing the song "Heartbeats Accelerating" in a style similar to their old records, with guitar, violin, mandolin, and accordion. There's a part about 90 seconds in where they show a tapping foot in a red sock. It feels like being at home. I played this clip a few times in a row and wondered if the reviewers were right, if the song did the same thing without the synthesizers. But I keep going back to those eerie notes that open the album version. You could loop them, put a bass tone underneath and slip it onto one of the Aphex Twin ambient records. They're disorienting but close sounding, the sound cue for a kindly spirit in a Miyazaki film. The acoustic version is very nice, and probably a preferred version for my parents, for the singers at the Mariposa Folk Festival. But it can't communicate the same thing as the keyboard version. There's a line in the song where they sing, "Will it come on a Saturday night?" and it's nearly jarring on the album. Because this disembodied future spirit shouldn't even know the days of the week, to be honest.
Around the time that we were listening to this CD in my mom's apartment, Mick Harris was getting ready to leave one of my then-favorite bands, Napalm Death. He invented the blast beat, but he was sick of it, and wanted to experiment. He ended up making this lurking, low-end electronic dub music in the band Scorn. My friends and I were scandalized that our favorite drummer was instead using a drum machine, but there's a scratchy, mournful humanity on those records you couldn't find on Harmony Corruption. A year later I heard Godflesh's Pure in an Ottawa record store and bought it immediately, listened to the cassette on a walkman and missed the entire ferry tour we took that afternoon. Up until that point, drum machines felt like a hack, like a way to streamline. Like that Henry Rollins side project, Wartime, or the Malhavoc records which felt like a guy who didn't know how to collaborate with other people. When I think of those years, of the path to Skinny Puppy and Laibach, it feels like it was Scorn and Godflesh that showed me how electronic instruments could create a new way to indicate anxiety, weightlessness, and yearning. But in retrospect, it was probably two Canadian folksingers in their 40s who made this visible for me.
Friday, June 21, 2019
The Germs - No God
When Dave Van Ronk died in 2002, I read an obituary that discussed his early fascination with the U.K. folk ballad tradition. Dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these narrative, mostly unaccompanied songs were collected by Francis James Child in the late 1800s, preserving them at a time when younger generations had stopped learning to sing them from their grandparents. The eight LP collection of ballads sung by A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl brought the songs to life for Van Ronk in the 1950s, and he traveled to London to hear these folk songs firsthand. When he connected with the young English and Scottish singers continuing this tradition, they were thrilled to meet an American. "Tell us all about Woody Guthrie!" they asked. "Do you know Harry Smith? We love the American Anthology of Folk Music." If Van Ronk was stunned to learn that the new U.K. singers weren't so interested in their own musical inheritance, he was similarly surprised that they were more aware of American traditional music than he was. Their admiration for this, his local history, refocused him on the American work songs, protest music, and storytelling that became the core of his career.
Around that time I was in touch with these kids in Oxford who did a label called Youth Club Tape Club and we traded records. At first it was stuff we'd put out, but then it turned into stuff we found around town. They would find cheap Raincoats or Liliput 7"s and I would send them back the Proletariat LP or the Contortions "Buy" with the corner punched. The undervalued UK records for the undervalued US records. We both thought it was really funny, and I kept thinking about that Dave Van Ronk story, wondering if I was part of the process of ignoring the records closest to me, of fixating on things from far away. In response, I mailordered a Wipers t-shirt from Greg Sage, wrote a fan letter to one of the members of Reversible Cords, and started finding new things to love about the Minutemen.
A couple of months ago, my friend Jeremy asked me to come on his radio show to play some songs and tell stories. He started a list of songs we could play and asked me to add some favorites. I put Bomber Jackets, Way Through, and Vital Idles. Honey Bane, Huggy Bear, Sara Goes Pop and Gareth Williams. He wrote back and was like, "hi let's see if we can open this up a little bit" and I laughed so hard at this reminder of my continued fixation on music from the U.K., I really thought it had passed.
One of the new LPs I sent to Youth Club Tape Club was for a band I sang in, and I remember being anxious about the English kids listening to it. I figured they'd see through my mimicry of the singers I liked, dismiss it as a crummy American attempt at affecting a kind of British post-punk sound. A year or so after that band broke up, Dana and I were talking about why I didn't love how I sounded on it, and I had an epiphany. "Instead of listening to the Fall and Wire, I should've been listening to the Germs." I thought the detachment and enunciation of those British singers was the right model for voicing my discontent. Their choice to cram a bunch of words in each line, to signal tough feelings via breathlessness rather than volume, felt closest to my panic in those years, and to the way I thought I should resist. A lot of words, a lot of information.
What I realized, what I was trying to say to Dana, is that instead of convincing, I should have been taunting. Ideas are great, but so is feeling. Darby Crash's lyrics are SO GOOD but he communicates so much more through a snarl, through repeated syllables and the sound of his tongue stopping up his throat. He starts "No God" with a rising buzz that sounds like a kid imitating a motorcycle driving by. The broken way he drops the word "worry" signifies more actual dread than the word itself. There's a part in that oral history book about the Germs where someone recalls how surprised all their friends were was when the "Lexicon Devil" 7" came out with the printed lyrics, and how thoughtful the lyrics were. They said something like, "I didn't really even know there were words!" But I wish there'd been a follow up quote where someone else said, "but no one was surprised at the content of the songs." Because no one should have to read the lyrics to unpack Darby's exasperation, his knowledge of the systems operating on him, his refusal to obey. Maybe if I'd come across Van Ronk's origin story a little earlier, I would've taken the lesson to pay attention more to my immediate surroundings and legacy, and probably would've done a better job of voicing my own indignation.