Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied

Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994

Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.


Day Thirty-Seven: The Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Virgin Records ■ 5099923481817
Freestyle Dust ■ XDUST9LP

Released September 2, 2008
Produced by The Chemical Brothers

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Galvanize
  2. Hey Boy Hey Girl
  3. Block Rockin’ Beats
  4. Do It Again
  1. Believe
  2. Star Guitar
  3. Let Forever Be
  4. Leave Home
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Keep My Composure
  2. Saturate
  3. Out of Control
  1. Midnight Madness
  2. The Golden Path
  3. Setting Sun
  4. Chemical Beats
I believe I have managed, at this point, to cover my reluctance regarding compilations, so I’ll let that pass. Part of that is because, more importantly, I’d never listened to the Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) before this. In fact, I slit the shrinkwrap just today to listen to this. I respected groups and artists like the Chemical Brothers or the Crystal Method or Daft Punk from afar, but was generally reluctant to touch on the intentionally repetitive segment of electronic music (also touched on briefly, this time with the Caustic Window compilation). I didn’t understand it, really, and associated it strongly with actually going and seeing electronic artists perform, which I’d never done. Having actually done it now (to see French synthpop artist David Grellier, aka College), I don’t know if the whole process makes sense to me personally. I enjoyed it, but man was that a confused audience. No one was sure how to clap or respond in general.

In any case, I developed my love for the more frenetic and bizarre segment of modern electronic music (generally speaking, “EDM”, or “electronic dance music” to differentiate from the electronic music of prior decades) via people like Richard D. James instead, who tend to not have ultra-danceable beats at all. My brief exposure to someone’s taste in more house/trance/electro style via the suggested viewing of the intensely “suggestive” (if you can even pretend to call those “suggestions”) video for Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”, as well as a night’s worth of trance and house played over the only LAN party I ever attended. I recognized the appreciation in the person playing it, but felt it wearing thin as the night went on–maybe justifiably, as I couldn’t tell you whose music it was, and it might have failed as a representation. I also dabbled for only a moment with the “Hard House” mix of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, which struck me (and the ubiquitous John) as absurd and ridiculous. Those associations tended to keep me away for some time.

I picked up this compilation (a collection of Chemical Brothers singles, as the sticker on it notes) while I was still with Borders, during the time at which the brief, tiny test market for vinyl was ended and the remains were expunged via clearance, alongside a large percentage of standing multimedia that also could not be returned to the source for credit. It was severely clearanced (one of two LPs I picked up at this time, the other will horrify strangers, and cause eye-rolls from people who know me, I suspect), so I decided I’d go ahead and pick it up. I can’t recall now, but I may have decided it would be worth it in case it went up in value, but more likely decided it was a decent deal and thus a good way to suddenly break into listening to something I didn’t normally–that was the beginning of my most experimental phase, musically speaking.

Because I had nothing to associate it with or to otherwise push me into opening it, it sat aside for the last three or four years, untouched. That makes it, like BK-One’s Rádio do Canibal, part of what I get out of this blog–reason to listen to the untouched and nearly-untouched records I own.

Obviously, all of this is building toward an understanding of where I’m coming from for this particular release: ignorance. While I always try to approach new music with an open ear and an open mind, the balance of knowledge behind it and the lack of familiarity or touchstones can make it an awkward thing to write about. It’s worth noting (in my ever trivially-oriented pedantic way) that these are mostly radio or single edits where those exist: slightly chopped down versions of songs designed to play better on radio or in other free-flying, out-of-context areas.

They are packed on these two LPs alongside a booklet that has modified, screen-printed and generally monochromatic versions of the original (already minimally coloured and “simplistic” in most cases) single art the songs were drawn from, as well as a 12×12″ screenprint-style flat. A nice little package, that feels a lot better than it looks from the outside as a non-gatefold 2×12″.

“Galvanized” immediately called to mind, for me, the sounds of Euphrates-style production–Euphrates being a relatively obscure hip-hop group of Iraqi ancestry. There’s a Middle Eastern style string sample (listed as being from Najat Aatabou’s “Just Tell Me the Truth”) that is most prominent in all of it, the production on it starkly contrasted with familiar Western production styles. Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest (who the otherwise unfamiliar may recall from the Black Keys/Hip-Hop  project Blakroc I covered earlier) features as a vocalist for the track, which uses both that broad, intense midrange of the Aatabou sample and rhythmic, unified bass and drum pounding to give a sense of drama to the track.

Thudding drum leads into a vocal sample from “The Roof is on Fire” by Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three, which has the ever-present sense of pumping up that samples like this tend to carry: “Hey girls, B-boys, superstar DJs, here we go!” that gives the impression that it’s actually there to announce the song itself is about to take off. There’s not a sudden lift off, especially because the sample is repeated throughout; instead, the song is trance-like (if not technically in genre terms, at least in auditory sense), with a focus on looped synths of distinctly electronic nature.

The intensely funky bass sample (of indeterminate origin, though various claims exist) is the focal point of “Block Rockin’ Beats”, with the Schoolly D sample (“Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats”) placed a bit above and away from the track, more like an announcement from someone introducing the Brothers than coming from an involved performer. Sampled drums (as opposed to electronically produced ones) give the song an overall more organic feel, though the intrusion of warping synths and siren-like scratch-style noises keeps anyone from mistaking it for anything but what it is.

While I found the previous recordings appreciable but outside my personal expanse, “Do It Again” changed that significantly: the sequenced low-end melody, is incredibly infectious, and is kept from wearing out its welcome with the surrounding squeaking rhythm, “Let’s turn this thing electric” sample, and vocals of Ali Love (“Oh my god what have I done/All I wanted was a little fun/Got a brain like bubblegum/Blowin’ up my cranium”). The fact that Love’s lines match that awesome bass sequence yet are rendered at the higher end of his range makes them that much more enjoyable. The breaks for thumping bass, sustained synths and normally ranged vocals from Love are quite nice breaks, taking the clustered sound of the prior segments and letting it breathe for a moment.

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party gets to do vocals on “Believe”, which was most exciting of all guests (barring one whose appearance is amusing in the context of this compilation). Distinctly dancey with its full four-on-the-floor beat, the addition of a vaguely distorted wash of low melody and intermittent siren-like noises encourages a rather oppressive atmosphere that’s relieved somewhat by the Bloc Party-esque post-punk-y guitars and Kele’s actual voice (that’s not his guitar, though, so far as I can tell). After a rubbery “solo” of the electronic variety, the song veritably explodes, but finds itself calming back down to the constraints of the low end after a few bars. The high, pounding jitter of that “solo” is delightful, though.

The first track to avoid the trap of lower pitches, “Star Guitar” is sparkling and shiny at open, and is slowly phased through more smooth and comforting tones, that carry their way through the song, moving with gentle curves and slopes behind an expectedly strong, dance-y beat, though the moments those worming tones phase into the forefront are backed by a lighter version of the beat that adds a certain ambience (not ambiance) to those moments and makes them incredibly pleasant, though the clacking that speeds to a blur after them is quite nice in a different way.

Bringing back the sampled drumming and a more organic, live-sounding bass, “Let Forever Be” was the song that sounded most familiar to me. Perhaps because of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher singing the vocals (not sampled, as he was involved in the song’s creation). “How does it feel” he asks of various possibilities, with a thoroughly rock (and great) drum sample beneath it, and the warm phasing of 60s production worked into it.

“Leave Home” is one of the earliest tracks on the album, and is built heavily on rock instrumentation, even as it opens with only an echoing sample and a relaxed sort of alarm. Fuzzed-up wah-wah guitar samples and intense basslines are then moved in, a syncopated drum beat drops in and, in large part, takes over. By far, as the actual beats go, one of the best on this album. The bass (also a bit fuzzed) rolls over the top of the drums, but the clever construction of the drums takes the cake, by far. Some of the tracks give the feeling that they should have (or maybe even need) visual backing to complete them, but “Leave Home” is very complete by itself, despite relying only on very ordinary instrumental samples–or at least very samples of very ordinary instruments.

Leaping from that early track (“Leave Home” is from their debut album) straight to a track new for this compilation, “Keep Composure” features rapper Spank Rock. It’s one of the filthiest–musically, not lyrically–tracks on the album, everything distorted and buried down at the bottom, roiling and burbling through a fuzzy juggernaut hum that zips upward every other beat. Binary electronic oscillations–the kind one gets from completing electronic circuits to make a simple noise–flutter upward through Spank Rock’s verses, as the high-pitched beeps of a pinched woodwind sample (similar to the beep of early answering machines signaling message recording) are the only major accent on the bassier portions though. As with many tracks of this kind of “sleazy” feeling, this is a fun listen and just feels good.

Another of the scattered songs that aren’t overtly heavy or hard, “Saturate” originates in a very nice near-stuttering melody that sounds like it’s being jammed through a lo-fi electronic speaker, though it’s replaced by a warbling, lower version of itself, before both are pushed down into the muck as a fuzzed up version that loses the halts for smoother transitions. The melody is repeated over this, then, by a variety of new sounds that build on top of each other to an apex–which suddenly drops off to only the warbling low-end version. The fuzzed up bit has a lovely clicking secondary rhythm that is just the perfect touch to what would otherwise be again in the internal-organ-rearranging bass-defined kind of track we’ve heard earlier. As this harder range of tracks goes, this is definitely one of the best on here.

I mentioned an amusing vocal guest who outstrips Kele in cool, and that is Bernard Sumner–that a man from New Order, who recorded the much more iconic album Brotherhood appears on this compilation is just entertaining in and of itself. Sumner is also joined by Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie at moments. It’s a clever match, as the beat is intense and absurdly uptempo for the type of vocals either of these men deal in. Sumner’s voice in particular half-ignores the beat, or seems to, because it moves at no more than a quarter of the same speed. When he begins repeating “We’re out of control/Out of control…” it’s like a hypnotic breakdown, almost, as if he can’t escape that thought so long as they’re running through this chorus. The second time through, the electronic portion of the track takes over, his repetitions slowing, but the music beginning to suggest guitars and a much brighter tone, but one that is suddenly chopped into a speeding bassline that carries Sumner off into electronic splintered scatter.

“Midnight Madness” actually uses an electronically filtered set of modulated vocal samples (think Transformers, a bit) as it works itself into a frenzy, before the beat actually drops, a bass melody catchy and thumping, but overlaid with a squall of distortion that rides over it like a cloudy sky. High-pitched squeals move into place a rather tightly played guitar-esque melody. The distortion follows it, though, with those squeals from before forming a tightly patterned high-pitched rhythm that expands itself into a return of the “midnight madness” vocal sample, after which the song breaks down into a burbling soup of sounds. Another of the most body-moving feels.

The actual sounds of “The Golden Path” are warmer and more comfortable than a lot of the rest: rounded corners aren’t offset by distortion, fuzzing, or deep bass. Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips take on vocal duties, and it ends up sounding a lot more like an electronically-infused dance-punk, though the flute sample is terribly peculiar in this context. It ends up more like a story told over a backing than vocals built into the song–as the samples most explicitly are, but many of the “live” vocals also amount to. A shining upward-trending sequence as the song adds a sort of electronic chorale of “Aahs” moves the song in an overall upward direction throughout, the harmonized vocals of Coyne and Drozd oddly recalling many of the vocals of Bernard Sumner, though I would imagine that is coincidence–dance-inflected New Order notwithstanding (and possibly suggesting I’m being a bit thick-headed to call this coincidence).

Noel Gallagher returns in “Setting Sun”, which is a return to the breakbeat style exhibited earlier, the way his vocals hover into existence and are surrounded by a buzzing not unlike swarmed insects gives a sort of benign menace to the song: like a movie’s satanic plotline you take more as fun than terrifying. The shrieking siren-like sounds that announce the song and some of its breaks pierce in a way that avoids annoyance or discomfort while not failing to stand out noticeably. It feels more, as a beat, like something you would hear in and amongst people dancing in primal fashion, devoid of the self-conscious and free in movement.
The compilation closes with “Chemical Beats”, the song that actually lead to their name (as the original Dust Brothers were not big on Simons and Rowlands using their name after they actually started touring). As with prior early song “Leave Home”, “Beats” is less obviously electronic in manufacture: the central sound is electronic, but has the rough edges of many earlier electronic noises. There are drum machine drums this time, which even pull that oh-so-favourite move of speeding to a rising blur that holds the same place as bass drops in modern dubstep or breakdowns in the metallic veins of the past few decades’ approach to hardcore (the kind that doesn’t seem to relate to hardcore punk at all)–a moment to really catch an audience and bring their hearts to their throats before release.
As with my periodic forays into Daft Punk after their work on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, I don’t find myself dismissive of these branches of electronic dance music, but I also don’t find myself completely engaged with them. I often get the feeling that casual listening is inappropriate for these things, that the repetitions cause them to function better in a context where actions are guided by the sounds heard, where the song can be felt and “displayed”, so to speak. Perhaps, though, I’m just of the wrong mind, musically, to really get this (I do actually enjoy it, largely, but a lot of it at once remains semi-exhausting for me). If anyone out there in the world has suggestions on how to grasp this more thoroughly, or to understand the development of it, I certainly welcome it. Until then, I shall plow away as I feel the urge, attempting to understand it exclusively on my own terms.
  • Next Up: The Church – Untitled #23

Day Thirty-Six: Caustic Window – Compilation

Rephlex Records ■ CAT009LP
Released June 1, 1998
(EP release dates below)
Produced by Richard D. James

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m cheating. While the credited artist for this release is “Caustic Window”, that is, in fact, one of the (many) pseudonyms of one Richard D. James, whose most famous monikers are AFX and, of course, The Aphex Twin. If you’ve been reading here a while, or if you just click that link, you’ll see that this is not the first of his releases for me to cover here. However, because I feel it’s legitimate to treat this as a “C” release (alphabetically speaking), it avoids the issue of clustering multiple days around a single artist and allows me to cover more of my collection while not (strictly) violating the alphabet. It’s not the only time this will occur, but this is the time they’ll come closest together (the other I can think of off the top of my head is Leon Russell, who will obviously appear much later, but who released two albums with Marc Benno, at least the first of which was credited originally to The Asylum Choir).

In any case, this is a compilation of the 3 EPs James released as Caustic Window, which were put out by the label he co-founded, Rephlex. The original releases of each EP were actually a bit larger, some tracks being shaved off with the CD release of this as Compilation as well as the original vinyl issue of it as a 3xLP in three conjoined clear plastic sleeves. Each EP loses one track in the process, those being: “Popcorn” (a version of the Gershon Kingsley track made famous by Hot Butter) from Joyrex J4, an untitled track from Joyrex J5 typically nicknamed “R2-D2”, and “H.M.N.E.” (“Humanoid Must Not Escape”) from Joyrex J9i.

Despite the compilation’s release date above, the EPs were released much earlier, and I’ve included those release dates below each EP’s title.

Joyrex J4

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT004)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Joyrex J4
  2. AFX II
  3. Cordialotron
  1. Italic Eyeball
  2. Pigeon Street

The title track from Joyrex J4 is built from the sound of a wobbling piece of cardstock (unlikely this is actually what was used, but it tells you what it sounds like), but quickly eschews this by turning into the acid house that makes up all of these EPs. The beat is pounding and rapid, not necessarily designed for actual dancing (allegedly, James created his early track “Digeridoo” and its 140bpm beat to wear dancers out at DJ gigs). Layered into the beat are more wobbling–though the later instances are more electronic, an angular rise-and-fall melody, a distant, phasing buzz and a difficult to describe sound that skips as if being halted from high speeds.

“AFX II” (while there are some instances in which James obscures his identity, to the point that speculation still marks releases from that artist insofar as who it actually is, often he makes no attempt to hide it, and does so only as a matter of distinguishing styles and labels they are released on) is one of the hardest beats in the set, sounding as if it’s a second generation recording, and maybe, just maybe, built on ambient sampling of some banal piece of machinery. It’s a short track, but an appreciably aggressive one.
“Cordialotron” is one of the tracks that most recalls his only-slightly-earlier work on things like Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It’s not a very hard beat, though it’s definitely strong enough to fit in its place in these releases. It’s strongly melodic, via its use of a looped melody that emulates a keyboard, and a warping sort of “lead” that rides over it. If you liked SAW8-92, this will feel way more familiar and comfortable, with the production approach also resembling that, with that echoing spaciousness and a minimal drum section (for this release, anyway).
The haunting (reversed) Julie Andrews (!) sample that opens “Italic Eyeball” implies we’re in for more ambient techno, and doesn’t really let down. It’s still very strong on rhythm, even as compared to “Cordialotron”, but it the woodwind-esque ethereal melody has a semi-central role, and the percussive section does actually deal in varying pitches, even using a bass-like loop to help glue the track together.
“Pigeon Street” is a wonderfully cheerful slice of fun, at only 0:23 running time, sounding as if it might have been taken from a children’s program from the late 70s or the 80s, cheerful and melodic, using plunking melody for rhythm, and “nasal”  bounces for the “lead” melody. Unsurprisingly, there was a children’s program on the BBC in ’81, that actually did use a partly synthesized theme song (it doesn’t sound at all alike though, especially as it is primarily an actual acoustically played theme).

Joyrex J5

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT005)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Astroblaster
  2. On the Romance Tip
  1. Joyrex J5

Unsurprisingly, “Astroblaster” returns us to the more hardcore side of James’ Caustic Windows material, pulling out a truly stomping beat, and keeping its melodic variations somewhat abrasive and metallic, as many of the sounds are on these EPs. A harsh buzzing hum is the primary melodic “instrument”, one that in some ways hints at the sounds that would work their way into his less repetitive (ie, not acid house) releases in the coming years. Hints of the sounds of “On” can actually be heard here, though used in entirely different ways.

“On the Romance Tip”, at open, almost sounds as though it could turn out to be truly ambient: the opening segment wouldn’t have been out of place on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, but an actual percussive track does worm its way in after a few measures, placing it more in the vein of the original Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and its “ambient techno” designation. As such, this is still the kind of track most people will find more pleasant and more palatable. The sustained notes that make the melody are cold, distant and expansive, but quite pretty. The fidgety secondary rhythm track keeps it all moving and from being too somber, too. It actually ends with the sounds you’d expect more from the earliest electronic artists, who recorded in the early 70s, sort of like really badly synthesized strings–a sound I happen to enjoy, actually.
Because the emphasis of these EPs is on primarily acid house tracks, the title track for Joyrex J5 ends this version of the EP (it does end the original version as well) on that note. It is a less harsh track than “Astroblaster”, though, even if it is the longest track in the entire series. The beat is rapid and not overly focused on bass, which keeps the track centered more in the midrange and helps its comfort level for listeners a lot (barring those who are really big on the harsh sounds, anyway). The completely unrelated rhythm and melody that comes in about a third of the way through is not an unusual technique at this point for James, and the way it comes in and ignores everything else, just hovering in the background with a sense of mysticism is part of what tends to make his work better for sitting and listening, or listening more than just feeling in a rave-y context (that’s why he suggested that his work be called “Braindance”–which appears on the only liner notes for this album, apparently actually trademarked–instead of the pretentious and snobby “intelligent dance music”). Oddly, that melody, despite its completely disjointed placement, manages to make the song quite pleasant indeed, even as the sped-up-saw sound of the primary hook cuts at your ear.

Joyrex J9

Originally released September, 1993 (J9i); December, 1993 (J9ii)
(Originally CAT009i and CAT009ii)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Fantasia
  2. Clayhill Dub
  1. The Garden of Linmiri
  2. We Are the Music Makers [Hardcore Mix]

If you don’t like the harsh noises, “Fantasia”, at least its opening, are not going to be your friend. Something like a machine starting up, or failing, or a locked groove of the same, it drops quickly both in pitch and even existence for the squeaking alarm-like centrepiece of the song, which is backed by a pounding, bass-heavy rhythm track, and a jagged, distorted lead “melodic” line. That line is aggressive, but actually quite cool. It’s actually hard for me to really say “harsh” here except in comparative terms. This shouldn’t really be “ear-bleed” kinds of harsh at all, just not something that makes you sigh contentedly. Of course, amusingly, a few minutes in (another of the longer tracks here), we hear a sample from a (purported) porn film–“Oooh, ooh!” from a female voice, which is eventually given a moment in isolation to play fully: “Oooh, ooh! That’s great, yeah!” says an, ah, excited female voice. While James has done this kind of thing before (and would again later), it doesn’t seem at all like it’s really “connecting” to porn or making the track actually sleazy: instead, it feels like James is wryly referencing the quality of his music (which he would also later do without the orgasmic association, via tracks like (despite what the title might imply to you) “Cock/Ver10”. 

“Clayhill Dub” is likely so named because it is focused less on bass kicks than it is on a bassy melodic line, which throbs throughout and keeps the song centered entirely around the low end. Occasional splashes of metallic clank and rattle, echoing or just striking momentarily wander in here and there, but largely it’s just that bassy line.
“The Garden of Linmiri” uses an alarm-like noise, not unlike “Fantasia”, but more like hearing a large factory’s alarm from outside, with the kind of distortion that comes from an intentionally ridiculously loud noise as muffled by the walls of a building. Squeaky, high-pitched rhythms (a favoured sound for James in faster tracks), is the trade-in for that alarm sound’s patient repetitions, as well as another of the full-on, hard beats (think “Astroblaster” above), with four-on-the-floor, but done with the drop of a boulder on concrete. The strike of grinding on metal alternates beats, while it all eventually mutates into an aggressive, clatter of pounding on thin metal trays in a rather catchy and appealing way.
Making it only appropriate that these are the two James releases I’m going to cover, the compilation closes with the “Hardcore Mix” of “We Are the Music Makers”, from SAW85-92. Let’s be honest: while it may have been James’s sense of humour to tell us one of his big pop star remixes was an unrelated track he had laying around, passed on because he was caught offguard by the deadline (the man has also said he checks our records by “smelling the grooves”, and that he used a goat to help create Drukqs, and that it was most helpful after he got it a “hoof mod”), this would not be surprising as an approach for him. The only connection here is that of Gene Wilder’s sampled voice, speaking that same line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams…” The beat itself is another hard one, four-on-the-floor accented with a secondary beat between the third and fourth. The focal point is a rhythmic brushing sound, as of stiff bristles taken back and forth across a floor, but clipped free of any higher pitches. A yawning, distorted buzz falls repeatedly in the background, keeping the pace of the track not quite so fast as the fully rhythmic portions would imply.
I’m normally not one for house or trance or any of the more repetitive strains of electronic music, simply because it seems like the repetition is intended to maintain danceability–a sound that can be appealing for its consistency, but that, as a focal point, doesn’t build for active listening unless done with that in mind (or because the artist in question likes to do so anyway). James’s Caustic Window material isn’t an exception to the style, really, but it does keep things interesting, as James may DJ for shows (and did then, too), but he’s also made it clear that music seems to be more of a listening interest to him than a dancing one. I think, then, that this reflects in how he puts even house-based tracks together. It is more repetitive, to be sure, and is not my favourite of his material, but that’s honestly not saying much when this is the artist in question. It is a bit odd that my collection of his work on vinyl is exclusively his analogue-produced material (this, SAW85-92, Analogue Bubblebath 3, and the Analord series of releases he did in 2005 on a return to that kind of equipment from his computer-based work in the preceding decade or so). Still, his work in electronics (I think we can believe that one, as well as his claims to modifying the equipment himself)  makes the material unique within the framework of the genres and styles the material falls into.
Just don’t go into this expecting free, easy, happy kinds of stuff. There are better releases from him for that kind of thing–but getting this kind of hard, harsh, rough stuff from him, this is probably the top.
  • Next Up: Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Day Thirty-Three (and a Third): Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I.R.S. Records¹ ■ SP 001
Released September, 1979
Produced by Martin Rushent
Engineered by Alan Winstanley (S1 – 1,8; S2-1,8), Doug Bennett (S1 – 2,3,5,6; S2 – 2,3,5,6), and Martin Rushent (S1 – 4,7;S2 – 4,7)
¹International Record Syndicate. Abbreviation not used on this record, but used on most releases from this label.

Side One (A-Sides): Side Two (B-Sides):
  1. Orgasm Addict
  2. What Do I Get?
  3. I Don’t Mind
  4. Love You More
  5. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?
  6. Promises
  7. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
  8. Harmony in My Head
  1. Whatever Happened To…?
  2. Oh Shit!
  3. Autonomy
  4. Noise Annoys
  5. Just Lust
  6. Lipstick
  7. Why Can’t I Touch It?
  8. Something’s Gone Wrong Again

As we go, if you were to check, you’d find there are very few compilations in my record collection, and an even smaller percentage amongst my CDs. I don’t normally go in for compilations, as, sometime around Rubber Soul, the album became the preferred format and was eventually considered as the construction in which people bought, enjoyed, experienced, and were provided music. Of course, not everyone (including some artists) had any interest in the idea, but it’s less harm to have an album that isn’t definitively an assembled, crafted set than it is to have parts excised from one that is and doled out by popularity. As it stands, a single compilation has appeared here. Another was mentioned in polling, and a small number will appear later. Largely, though, I leave them be, for fear of missing interesting interesting deep cuts, or getting things out of context that have very real contexts like Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. Still, Singles Going Steady was my introduction to Buzzcocks, at the hands of–to the surprise of no one–my friend John.

While we were in college (and rooming together), John took up a variety of bands–Can (to the chagrin of another friend, not appearing in my vinyl, though I have a healthy CD collection), Captain Beefheart (wait a few hours…), Gang of Four, and Buzzcocks. Plenty more, of course, but those were ones that tended to stand out. I tended to lump the last two together for some reason, despite being almost polar opposite branches from the same tree. The Buzzcocks would never have written a song like “Anthrax”, nor any like “Natural’s Not in It” (which some may remember from its hilariously inappropriate appearance in an X-Box Kinect commercial, if they don’t know it already). The subject matter and sounds of the bands were very different, but they did their best work (and most of their work) after the earliest considered end of punk–the demise of the Sex Pistols in early ’78. Quite accurately for Gang of Four, they are considered post punk. The Buzzcocks, however, were still pretty distinctly a punk band, albeit an extremely popular (in the U.K, at least!) one.
Both bands were in my ears semi-regularly, but neither made a huge impression for a while. We will leave Gang of Four for later, and come to what brought the Buzzcocks to me–or me to them, I suppose. While I was unwittingly hearing nothing but singles, it was “Promises” that most appealed to my ears, as well as, somewhat oddly, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” As I began to listen to the tracks around the two–this was after I’d learned this tended to be a good idea–I found I was doing things quite correctly in doing so. I ended up being the first of us to own one of their actual albums, once I found out Singles Going Steady was indeed a compilation. I actually ended up selling my copies of both–three wonderful reissues of their three full-lengths were released a few years back, including all of the non-album singles, b-sides, demos, BBC session tracks, and basically more demos. The other CDs were redundant.
Much like with Kate Bush, I picked this album up during one of my visits to Hunky Dory, paying about the price of a cheaper-end new release (at this point, a bit of a deal for this record!). I’d long since learned that, while the record is indeed a compilation, it is one that appeals to the more ordered side of my nature: The A-Side of the record is actually all of their first 8 A-Sides in chronological order. The B-Side is all the accompanying B-Sides, also in chronological order. While I.R.S.’s “lineage” (such as a founder named Miles Copeland III, brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland) meant they did have major label distribution, they weren’t an imprint or vanity label, so a bit less intense “marketing” was involved and gave us this more sane approach. Cleverly, the inner sleeve has a column of sleeve art for the singles, with the first side’s tracks and recording information to the left, and the second side’s version of the same on the right–in essence, marrying A-Side and B-Side back to each other. Release dates, studios, and engineers are included for each track, appealing, as well, to my more pedantic side (previously alluded to when discussing Burning Airlines’ Identikit).
“Orgasm Addict” is actually one of the most famous Buzzcocks singles–or, at least, I have the impression it is. It’s about exactly what it sounds like: “You’re a kid Casanova, you’re a no-Joseph/It’s a labour of love fucking yourself to death”. People question songs like “Turning Japanese” and “She Bop” (at least some do), but not a soul, beyond the intensely pretentious, could mistake the meaning and topic here. Pete Shelley’s voice is on the higher end of things, doesn’t really carry any sneer or swagger, just a “shockingly” straightforward admission of something normally left coded, if mentioned at all. And let’s not forget the mock orgasm he himself let’s out, midway through the song. John Maher’s drumming keeps a beat that means Pete wasn’t the only one emulating the topic. It’s one of the only remnants of Howard Devoto’s time in the band (the studio portion of which ended with Spiral Scratch much earlier in the same year).
Used in a few commercials in interceding years, “What Do I Get?” was proof that the Buzzcocks (particularly Pete, who wrote it) were not interested in conforming to standards, traditions, or expectations of even the semi-nascent punk scene. The subject matter is not far from the dramatic, world-ending kind of teenaged response to rejection and failed attempts at finding love: “I only get sleepless nights/Alone here in my half-empty bed/For you things seem to turn out right/I wish they’d only happen to me instead”. Like a lot of the Shelley-penned singles, it’s an energetic, buzzing sort of sound: he and Steve Diggle man guitars and riff rapidly, while Steve Garvey (replacing alcoholic Garth after the “Orgasm Addict” single) mans a steady bass and John Maher plays somewhat unusually varied drum beats with lots of great little fills and touches that are severely under-appreciated in a band known more for its catchy melodies and lyrics.
Maher gets another nice moment as he introduces “I Don’t Mind”, which is self-deprecating, self-loathing, and self-doubt married to submission to a stronger personality in another of the many love-oriented tracks the Buzzcocks recorded (many of which appear on Love Bites, which does help to characterize the largely Shelley-written attitude toward it). The pleasant melody of the guitars and the backing vocals (courtesy Diggle and Maher) that “ooh” and “woah-oh” in rather un-punk fashion stands out a good bit more on this one, though it’s also fun the way Pete’s voice seems to chase that melody down until his semi-bored call out “I don’t mi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yind”, gives him top billing in the moment.
The guitars of “Love You More”, galloping their way into a sudden harmonic are some of my favourites. While the lyrics of most Buzzocks are brought to mind readily from a song title alone, “Love You More” is not one of Pete’s best vocal constructions–but it’s a great riff, rattling cheerfully up at the higher end of its range. Maher’s practically out of control if you stop and listen to him–or, well, not control, but just as if he got bored and decided to make things way more interesting for himself. Unbelievable variety in there! The final line, though, is a great one, especially as recorded to be a very abrupt end to the song.
So far as I can tell, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” was the biggest single for the Buzzcocks in terms of lasting appeal. It was the song chosen to represent BBC DJ John Peel in eulogy, appeared in his infamous box of at-hand 45rpm 7″ records, and was later re-recorded by a variety of artists, including a rather interesting one (released as a single) from the Fine Young Cannibals. It’s deserving, as the earliest of their singles to feel most fully-realized. While the previous four are catchy and fun and witty, “Ever Fallen in Love” has a sort of gravitas to its sound, a musical progression, a good riff, a catchy chorus, and a perfect example of the attitude Pete puts into his vocal performances. The song blasts in first, driving forward unrelentingly, but eases up and let’s a semi-casual guitar lick cross in front of it, bouncing from note to note, heading ever upward. Pete’s describing a doomed romance, a relationship that shouldn’t’ve been, but sings about it in an unusual way: “You disturb my natural emotions/You make me feel I’m dirt/And that hurts/And if I start a commotion/I’ll only end up losing you/And that’s worse”. The most affecting line of each triplet is the one he adds the most flavouring to, moving upward in a stylized way, then adding the “And that…” qualification as if it’s an aside, with a tone that’s sort of condescending, or somewhat precious. It’s really infectious, and deserves the accolades and attention it does continue to receive.
My original favourite Buzzcocks song (and it remains so now), “Promises” starts with guitars running up four rimes as quickly as possible before counterbalancing by peaking twice and coming back down at about half that speed. Pete begins to sing about the joyous beginnings of a relationship but, “Oh”, he sings, and John Maher answers with an absolutely awesome trip around his drumset at lightspeed. “How could you ever let me down?” he continues after Maher’s run around, “Down!” Diggle adds as echo (sometimes I amuse myself thinking this is the sole reason he gets co-writing credit, but it actually does have tinges of his approach throughout). After the chorus comes around a second time, there’s a short bridge, with riffs that slowly move upward a step at a time every few strums. “Oh what a shaaaame…” Pete’s voice goes up and sort of cracks and fades off, to take us back to the song proper. While I have had experience in percussion and guitar, neither amounted to anything (and I mean that in a realistic sense, not a self-deprecating, false modesty sense), there are handfuls of things that get me every time in music if done properly. A good tom-based fill (anyone who reads this blog consistently will notice that quickly) is one of those things, and the way that it’s sandwiched between the lines of a good chorus, and is opened with such a simple but catchy riff means this song remains worth all I’ve always felt.
The growing variation in songwriting makes itself most apparent in “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, their first single from 1979. Alternating beats are marked with the slow descent of notes from guitar, letting Garvey and Maher really control the song’s opening and verses. Garvey handles the melody for the verses, while Maher keeps the feeling of the song both uptempo and kind of upbeat. Shelley brings his falsetto in for the chorus, a sudden rush of guitar and a flattening and speeding of Garvey’s bassline, drawn upward by Shelley’s voice as it rises up the range of his falsetto, dropping for the final syllable of “nowadays”. There’s a certain optimism to the song, in a strange way, as he goes from calling life an illusion and love a dream, to denying that they are either, from not knowing what it is, to knowing “just what it is”.
The only A-Side that lacks a credit from Shelley is the last one included here (they did record further singles, but they would have no prayer of fitting on a record that is already relatively close to capacity on particularly the second side). “Harmony in My Head” is a Diggle track, and is also the only one (even amongst the B-Sides Steve also wrote) that features him as lead vocalist. The guitars of Diggle and Shelley trade styles back and forth through a few simple riffs and licks, as Diggle sings a throatier, yell of a vocal. The chorus is actually one of the second handful to catch my ear. Diggle’s gruffness disappears, for a low pitched, almost Joe Strummer-esque recitation of the song’s title. After its second appearance, the guitars turn to palm-muting and let only Pete sing the quiet backing harmony (ahem) of the chorus. While rapid paces are not foreign to the band, and Maher certainly doesn’t take any opportunity to slow here, the overall feel of the song is lower and slower, contrasting nicely and establishing the variance in approach Steve takes to songwriting, as compared to Pete.
“Whatever Happened To…?” has one of the most openly featured basslines, somewhat odd as it is the only other track (besides “Orgasm Addict”, its A-Side) recorded with the removed Garth and not the stalwart and longer-playing Steve Garvey. Garth opens the track alone, with short strikes of guitar announcing the entrance of the whole band. Pete lists a variety of things, questioning what happened to each of them, before coming to his real question: “Whatever happened to you and I?” It comes closest to Gang of Four territory lyrically, yet skewed by the romantic angle. Vengeful and dismissive, Pete notes that the object of the song (defiantly refusing to establish gender to buck trends, Pete later making his bisexuality more apparent and open in his solo work) has love most resembling a product–“Your love is a cashed in check” he sings as if this were a loving lyric. It’s a good companion to “What Do I Get?” balancing the self-pity against anger.
“Oh Shit!” furthers the B-Side trend of dismissive anger, a rather dispassionate interjection (which you can probably guess) followed with explanations for the “surprise” defines much of the verse. This is the shortest song in all of the album, and indeed in all of their career (barring the outro bit of fluff “Radio Nine” from A Different Kind of Tension, which is just the sound of a radio tuned through static-y plays of various Buzzcocks songs). One of the most normal solos appears in the middle of it, The exclamation is later pushed into another usage, implying an original intent and a set up: “Face it/You’re shit”. The mock surprise attached to the blunt declaration of the worthlessness of the song’s object works perfectly, as an affected guitar echoes out into the ether.
The other Diggle-penned track, “Autonomy”, was another of my second “wave” of appreciated tracks (until the list became “all of them”). Maher starts off with a galloping beat that a careless ear might actually mistake for the galloping drumming of Clive Burr in “Run to the Hills”, followed by the crunchy sound of riffing guitars that keep the same pace (as does Garvey’s bass), before each line of the verse evens things out for a moment. A quick guitar descent turns to the slow build of the chorus: “I…/I want you-oo-oo/Autonomy”. The guitars and bass slow their pace considerably for this, despite Maher’s continued rapid beat. Despite Diggle writing the song, Shelley sings it largely alone, harmonized with (probably) Diggle for the chorus alone. Despite Pete’s higher voice, this track shares the lower-end orientation of Diggle’s other track, as well as the slower feeling–despite the galloping instruments.
A bit of a swinging beat turns to a gnarly lead that falls downward to muted riffing that turns to a lead that predicts Shelley’s vocal melody, and then accompanies it directly. Each line ends with a variation on, “Have you ever heard your mother say/’Noise annoys’?” and everyone stops immediately at the end of the second word, until Pete instead asks if she has been heard to scream it, nearly doing so himself, guitars let ring this time as the song briefly runs into instrumental territory, and the best guitar solos on the record, traded between the two players for a good few bars each. For a song called “Noise Annoys”, this is a catchy little number, which I doubt many would mistake for “noise”. Though what some consider noise does surprise me on occasion.
Co-written with their manager (using a pseudonym), “Just Lust” is in the vein of the first few A-Sides at first, all catchy riffs and to-the-point rhythms. There’s a brief slowing for four lines–“You shattered all my dreams and/My head’s about to bust/Is it all real-that’s how it seems/But it all comes down to dust”–that gives that moment an illusory quality, the guitars seeming to slide around each other just a bit, and an effect overlaid on Pete’s voice to make it seem as though it is not quite real itself, an effect that becomes more prominent as the song comes to a close, the instruments eventually also dissolving and separating from each other.
The B-side to “Promises” I always remember is just that, but often cannot recall easily (similar to “Love You More” for me in this sense). The way the song starts suddenly, and Pete raises the pitch of his voice at the end of each line in the verse gives it a sense of lost context. Of course, that’s not entirely strange: the song is a relative of “Shot by Both Sides” (and shares the rising riff that is so signatory of that song, though it’s hidden in the background here), the first single Magazine recorded–after Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form that band (that song credited to Shelley and Devoto). The verses are actually the catchier vocal lines, in one of those strange instances that feels as if, perhaps, something was inverted.
Absolutely strange in the context of this collection, “Why Can’t I Touch it?” is twice as long as most of the songs on the album, more than three times as long as some, and a full two minutes longer than the next longest. Garvey finally gets a chance to be the spotlit bass, a catchy groove that Maher just plays in lockstep with, letting it shine and relaxing for just the one track. Two semi-harmonized guitars, one in each stereo channel, announce themselves, playing similar but slightly different riffs that occasionally blend together. Pete begins listing the senses he can use to recognize “it”, but wonders “Why can’t I touch it?” with vowels dragged out over numerous beats, his voice following the gentle downward movements of Garvey’s bassline. At only a third of the way through, echoing, strange guitar sounds manifest themselves, tweeting and whistling in the background. After the second verse (somewhat synesthestic) and chorus, Diggle and Shelley begin trading their riffs from channel to channel, giving the groove-oriented track an extended and more varied atmosphere than it would have if simply repeating all parts. Maher begins to fill more on the drums, Shelley and Diggle continuing to experiment with the space Maher and Garvey have left them, playing with the chords and pieces of their previous riffs. The riffs are kind of bright and cheerful, and weirdly happy, and a single-picked variation on them echoes out to finally close the song–a better choice than a simple fade, I think.
The second longest track is actually the next one: “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” which makes use of a high piano note jabbed over and over and over for all but the chorus, giving a kind of tense insistence to the song itself–like it’s that pinprick of realization that something’s gone wrong, though Pete’s lyrics and delivery of them implies a more “c’est la vie” attitude toward the inevitable failures of life. Slightly phased guitars shift in and out throughout the verse, but turn to a sort of warbling consistency over the chorus, where the piano drops for just a little while, the thudding, sigh and groan of the verses turning upward in tone for just a moment–odd, for the moment where Shelley repeats “Again/And again/And again and again again…” A second chorus turns into a shambling, disjointed, atonal solo of deliberate awkwardness. It’s interesting to think of a deliberately steady, repetitive song doing so to emphasize the monotony of things going wrong. Outside the chorus, the only relief is the pointed bass lick that starts quite high and picks up speed as it heads downward before ending on a note somewhere between its peak and its valley. It’s another complete jump away from the “Orgasm Addict”s and “Love You More”s of the album, hinting further at the curiosities that appear in their albums (like instrumentals as peculiar as “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”).
The Buzzcocks are inexplicably lesser-known as punk bands go, rarely coming in the same breath as the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones, or the Clash, or the Damned (also criminally under-remembered, despite the relative fame and acknowledgment). Perhaps it’s the pop-oriented approach of their (ludicrously catchy) music, or the musicianship and “arty” end of things like their instrumentals–not a surprise Devoto was once in the band, enough to imply some camaraderie with Shelley and Diggle (who was bassist for the group, before Shelley moved up, with guitar, to frontman status, leaving Diggle to take on guitars, too). Now, like many things, this is probably a cultural divide across the ocean, but most of the named early punk bands are British, so there’s really not a great excuse for dropping the Buzzcocks out here.
They have released albums since their initial (1981) breakup, smatterings of them here and there since that time. Some are actually pretty good, though the Shelley/Diggle divide has both balanced into a more even split of writing credits, and into a more “consistent” feeling per each. Perhaps it’s the loss of Maher’s more complicated drumming, or the absence of a brilliantly in-tune rhythm section of Maher and Garvey both–not that their current crop are amateurs, but the feeling inevitably changes. Devoto did actually come back to work with Pete again later, for the “Shelley/Devoto” album Buzzkunst (haw haw).
If you like catchy, pop-oriented music, and especially like it with a side of deadpan and wit, make sure this band has some kind of place in your library. If you aren’t allergic to compilations–or even if you are–this record is a brilliant starting place, as it has all the hooks to put in you.
  • Next Up: Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk

Day Nineteen: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brother Records/Reprise Records ■  2MS 2083

Released May 16, 1966
[This release: 1972]
Produced by Brian Wilson

“This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That’s Not Me
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day
  6. Let’s Go Away for a While
  7. Sloop John B
  1. God Only Knows
  2. I Know There’s an Answer
  3. Here Today
  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
  5. Pet Sounds
  6. Caroline, No

When I initially put the selection of Beach Boys records I own up to a vote(on vinyl, though the CD set is actually not much different), I debated listing this one as it physically presents itself. Those familiar with the album may notice (probably immediately) that the cover looks a bit strange. Truth is, this is actually a compiled double album, paired with Carl & the Passions – So Tough. It’s a weird looking thing, and one I own as yet another of the doubled (in the case of Pet Sounds, I think tripled or more, really) records my dad let me take. I’d call it the “crown jewel” of that set, but there are albums I like more personally (including my other Beach Boys record, Surf’s Up), but as something to blurt out at others it sounds more like it validates my taste and knowledge.

That said, this is probably the one classic album I own on vinyl that I’m in a bad position to write on. The poll that is still running on the Beatles as of writing indicates my limited selection of their material on vinyl–certainly, it includes their oft-considered best by those who stop and measure (rather than responding by reflex), but it doesn’t include the iconic, name-drop title (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), so there’s a certain measure less pressure. More to the point, that alleged best is also my favourite, so, much along the lines of Pink Floyd, I’m a bit more at ease dealing with it (the equivalent there, if you’re wondering, is Wish You Were Here–less an icon, more a qualified work. Depending on who you ask, of course). Here, I’m in territory I regard similarly to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: albums whose reputations precede them, and who have been so automatically doled out to responses to “What is the best album…” that the question doesn’t even need to be finished. For those bands? For rock music? Some people just list those because it’s “the answer”, some because they sincerely believe it and can explain it, and a handful reject it out of hand primarily because some people do the first.

I don’t much like dealing with albums like these publicly: it puts me in the position of having to establish a clear opinion–which means detangling and cropping off the influence of reputation and the opinion bluffs of those who feel the need to automatically bring the public impression of their taste to the same level, and finally that of those who emphatically feel the need to reject it simply to prove the “honesty” of their opinions. I make a show of acting nervous or intimidated by writing about something written about a million times before, but I’m not writing this for money, so it isn’t as if I need to justify the cost to those who paid. More than anything, I don’t like the segment of that which means I have to tell you something that isn’t obvious. I have a lot of leeway with obscure or semi-obscure items, as the unfamiliar will have nothing to attach to it anyway, and the familiar will be looking for the familiar to find common ground (or to argue against it).

In this case, I’m also left with the opinions of Sir Paul McCartney, of Sir George Martin, in attempting to address an album widely considered one of the most ground-breaking and influential of all time. A response to Rubber Soul and the inspiration for the album I just mentioned three times above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thought in some ways to have been handed by the torch from Rubber Soul–itself given an infusion by the work of Bob Dylan–to carry the music industry out of the 45rpm single market and into the embrace of the 33 1/3 album approach. Those are some long shadows.

But that’s the reason I poll when I can: it means I don’t get to just dodge this, it means I don’t get to run off and happily talk about Surf’s Up and never have to nail down and clarify any thoughts I had, have, or will have about Pet Sounds. Or, it means everyone’s tired of hearing about Pet Sounds and I shouldn’t–if I weren’t directed–try to challenge myself. I know some people aimed for Surf’s Up (it was relatively close!) out of a personal affection, and some because it’s “not Pet Sounds“, in effect. So that’s where we ended up: more wanted to hear my thoughts–or torture me, perhaps–on Pet Sounds. I will do my best to live up, not to the reputation of the album or writing around it, but to be clear and as thoughtful as I can. I have notes (which I only occasionally take) as well as the information I have lingering around already–the Pet Sounds Sessions box set (with liner notes) and the 40th Anniversary stereo/mono dual release (in effect, I own about  6-7 versions of the album, counting the instrumental and vocal-only tracks on the box). Not so that I can just regurgitate Brian’s commentary or that of paid writers who got there first, but so that I can be most accurate regarding instrumentation and techniques involved in creating sounds, moods, tones, and atmospheres that I identify.

Beginning an album with a song that would become a single (though it started as a B-side to “God Only Knows”) was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s, but the totality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, particularly its intro, is still a sort of odd move. The sound of that opening (which apparently no one can confirm the instrumental identity of) that sounds rather like a harp is distinct and recognizable, but suggests nothing of the sounds one expects from the Beach Boys, the song that follows it, or the genre as a whole. Hal Blaine’s lone drum hit shifts the song entirely, and lets the intro fade quickly away, with Brian immediately launching into the chorus with his voice at full power, and the whole band (of session musicians–many with tens of thousands of credits under their belts at this point, and I mean individually) backs him for the rest, with Al, Dennis, Carl, and Mike assisting primarily with Mike taking over for the bridge. It’s a full, powerful song, using accordions, saxophones, mandolins, piano, organ and a variety of more expected instruments to chug along with a kind of energy that does not represent a large chunk of the album. It slows partway through, for just a brief time, which is quite unusual for an earlier pop album, at least in so distinct and constructed a way.

The energy that keeps “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” moving at such a quick clip (a lot if it driven by the accordions) is left behind almost entirely for “You Still Believe in Me”, though the intro is somewhat reminiscent of that song’s own introduction–even down to the bizarre methodology used to achieve the singular instrumental backing for a humming vocalization that seems to reverberate just slightly, but ethereally: album co-writer Tony Asher says one of them was left to crawl into a piano to pluck the strings, while another sat at it to let the notes ring.  As the song proper starts, we’re at a much slower pace than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Brian’s vocal is given a great deal more space: the song is more intimate, more personal. The backing is no less complex, with timpani and harpsichord accompanying the far more expected bass guitar. Backing vocals primarily define the repetition of the song’s title alone, which is useful as it allows for Brian’s “I wanna cry” to take its looping shape as an isolated voice. There are strange touches that hint at its place in psychedelia in this track, too: bike horns and bells seem to drop in from nowhere in particular–not incongruous, yet startlingly odd at the same time.

Brian abstains from lead vocal only a few times on the album, but the first is on “That’s Not Me”, where his cousin Mike Love takes over, the tempo fittingly speeding up (as Mike Love is generally more aligned with the lighter surf songs of the group, which are generally uptempo in line with their “fun” nature). Brian Wilson’s opening on the organ eventually becomes notes that are just held for long periods of time, creating a hum in the background. Tambourines set the half-shuffling beat, strangely filling the middle ground of the song, which is primarily percussive and low end behind Mike’s voice. The song is one of the more drug-like and odd, despite being, in some respects, more conventional. The absent middle space, in particular, gives it a slightly weird feeling.

It’s almost like we have “You Still Believe in Me” Part 2 when “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” comes following in, as Brian returns to lead vocals. The song is slower, sadder, and has the first appearance of strong strings. It’s sweetly sad, though: obviously Brian is addressing someone in pain, but is offering consolation and hope. He asks the listener to listen to his heart beat–and for just a moment, the bass emulates a heartbeat. The bass thrums underneath it all even outside that moment, but the song has a comfortable embrace: it’s spacious, but not cold and filled with empty parts.

Giving the impression of alternating tones, “I’m Waiting for the Day” brings the tempo back up, with the curious choice of a percussive intro, though the use of timpanis gives a bit of variation in pitch, snare hits tweaking the sound just enough to kickstart the song, as if they are the turns of a key to start an engine. And when that engine starts, it’s with an organ’s keys slid across and then hit lightly but rapidly, the melody actually briefly introduced by flutes, but then taken over by violins as Brian begins to sing the verses–acknowledging the hurt of someone abandoned that he is attempting to bring solace to. “I’m waiting for the day that you can love again”, he sings, and the song jumps upward, as does his voice, which takes on a slightly harder edge, though an edge denoting determination rather than threat. The backing vocals–all Brian–move around each other for another of the drums’ moments of not only emphasis, but actual appearance: most of the track is absent the drum kit, though the timpanis do have a relatively strong presence through much of it. A last hushed lead up to “..when you can love again”, gives us a pretty string outro, but the drums don’t seem to want this to happen, and bring the organ, the backing Brians and timpanis back for him to repeat, “You didn’t think/That I could sit around and let you go”, which has that determined, self-confident edge as it fades out.

There are two instrumental tracks on the record, and the first is “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, which would be the end of side one, were it not for the decision to include a studio-unrelated recording (“Sloop John B”). Julius Wechter mans the vibraphones and defines the majority of the track as a result, which builds on a sound only they can provide: both percussive and gentle, melodic and curved but distinct. There are numerous instruments layered behind them, especially a piano that gradually takes over and brings horns with it, a drum fill bringing the song back down to a hush, but one that cannot keep down the string section, which builds the song back to horns, which only build more, to a seemingly unified note, then isolate themselves. A brief appearance from what I believe are temple blocks–echoing in the background behind the vibraphone, the overdubbed strings only gently drawn in the background, but a faux-steel guitar (apparently a Coke bottle on the strings) gives a bit of a rounding to the edges of the song, with more familiar guitars given their place, too. The intermittent drumming that crops up on the album appears again, marking separations in the piece to great effect–the absence of the drums previously is emphasized, yet so is the actual appearance. It’s really a great piece–no surprise Brian is most proud of this one.

The only cover on the album, “Sloop John B” was recorded long before the primary Pet Sounds Sessions, but doesn’t feel as out of place as rumours that it was jammed in suggest (evidence suggests this was actually not the case). The song was a traditional folk one, an arena with which Al Jardine (the only non-family in the original Beach Boys) was most familiar. A metronomic tapping and glockenspiel descends into Brian’s vocal, and slowly other instruments join up, a guitar, a bass, drums briefly, and then more steadily, another voice (Mike Love’s) comes in for the bridge and the chorus, after which, the backing vocals appear briefly in non-verbal form, and by the next chorus, the drums are regular and consistent, all the voices are joined in, enough that the instrumentation disappears entirely for a brief a cappella moment. The drums finally make up for lost time and pound every beat as the song fades, along with Side One.

A huge single for the group, “God Only Knows” opens the second side with French horns and keys, with a bass line linking it to the first verse, where we get to hear Brian’s brother Carl sing lead for the first time on the album. A simpler, wood block/temple block rhythm backs the verses, though a deeper rhythm transitions it to the next verse. When Carl gets to the title of the song, there’s a curious moment as the rhythm is broken and chopped from the steady beat it used previously, quite staccato but for a brief fill on the drums. Backing vocals that flit around each other converge and pitch upward to Carl’s repetition of the title that leads to the second verse. Later the voices of Brian and Mike are recognizable in alternating vocalizations of the title that start a beat off from each other and begin to spiral together, emphasizing the sentiment of the song in general: it’s a bit sad, but with a warmth and brightness at the core–who knows what the singer would be without the addressee, but they are both there right now.

At one point, we might have had “Hang on to Your Ego” next, but the title was changed and we’re instead left with “I Know There’s an Answer”. It’s centered around an intro of mutliple key instruments that lean into their parts, but a buzzing of baritone and tenor saxophones hovers in the background, with the rhythm defined by a tambourine. Any attempt to listen closely only reveals that it’s nearly impossible to pick through all the layers. The choice of baritone saxophone for the solo, backed by banjo is beyond peculiar, and slants the song in a way that a number of songs on the album turn: somewhere that is, on the surface, comforting pop, but something else alongside it.

“It starts with just a little glance now/Right away you’re thinking about romance now” begins “Here Today”, keys pounding rhythm and slowly transitioning melody under Mike Love’s voice, drums and tambourine pounding down each beat as the song moves in, his voice rising slightly and getting somewhat faster paced, until it all falls back down, and the pounding heart of new love is brought back to reality with the reminder: “You’ve got to keep in mind/Love is here today/And it’s gone tomorrow”.

I will forever associate the next song with my best friend in high school and college, who was getting into 1960s music when we lived together, and spent a while with the Beach Boys before I ever did–I could name at least a handful of peculiar injokes we ended up with, but few would make sense to anyone else. Still, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is a track that I think of him referencing the phrase a few times, and so the part that sticks strongest remains the title’s appearance in the lyrics. It’s odd, as it seemed that my friend meant the phrase in the reverse–being born too late, not early–and that moment is out of character, tonally, for the rest of the song. The song is light and airy at first, but there’s an odd temple block construction, and a backing of “Oohs” that seems almost as if it’s mocking or out of step (or rather, pitch) with Brian’s vocal. They even get to share the spotlight without any backing for a moment–it’s hard to tell what feels (quite deliberately) mismatched there: are the backing vocals sadder? Are they just significantly lower? Not harmonized? And then you hear a higher, modulating voice–but it’s not, and that rapidly becomes apparent: it’s the infamous theremin that Brian later made such famous usage of in “Good Vibrations”.

As a title track, “Pet Sounds” is weird. As a track on this album, despite the matching titles, “Pet Sounds” is weird. Ratcheting percussion launches it, hints of guitar that are distorted as if some force has knocked them silly appear, before a lightly wavering guitar line takes control of the piece, horns subtly building it up, but all of them stopped short for a moment. When it returns, the horns push again, seeming to attempt to take control away from the rather “castaway” guitar sound, bongos and tons of other instruments wandering in and out, until one baritone saxophone bleats out the noise that introduces the first large crescendo that comes to define the latter half of the piece.

“Caroline, No” is not necessarily the expected favourite, but it is indeed Brian’s favourite track from the album. A very dry tambourine defines the beat of the song, but is fleshed out with an organ line and Brian’s double-tracked vocals. A lone drum beat echoes at the start of each measure, as Brian pines for a girl who broke his heart. Woodwinds (primarily bass flutes) repeat the melody after Brian’s last vocalization of it, with light accents from the vibraphone we thought we’d heard the last of, until it all fades away. And then it fades back in, but not with the music we know: it’s the ringing bell and whistle of an oncoming train, dogs barking and finally that train passing, rattling the tracks and heading off into the distance amid the last barks of those dogs.

I find it no less difficult now to talk about this album: I found nooks and crannies I’d not heard, I gathered a lot of the elements that bring it lasting respect that I had taken for granted previously, but I’m still left with a central dilemma: how do you recognize brilliance after it is already labelled as such? Can you? Is there some element of self-fulfillment or expectation nascent in any attempt to explore or discuss a work so well-regarded? Can you really give it proper context once its context as brilliant has been determined, affirmed and re-affirmed?

I don’t have answers to any of that. I’ve always enjoyed this album, so it’s not exactly the kind of stretch for me that it is to listen to some albums where I have to take time and understand why anyone likes them in the first place. There’s a production sensibility Brian brought to this that I always found unusual, which is the sort of gauzy haze layered over a lot of it. Maybe it’s the way the vocals are mixed, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded–it’s definitely something around the vocals in general. I listened harder this time and was still left wondering. I found new respect–a lot of it–for the instrumental pieces (which might easily be my favourite parts of this album), as well as reaffirmation of my love for Carl Wilson’s voice over the rest. I found new appreciation for the absurdly brilliant craft and layering of the album. That point, that was brought home. The way that each and every part seems to live and last only for the moments it is to be heard, for where it brings the whole of a song to a conclusion, or a feeling–that is something that almost defines the differing listening styles I know best.

My aforementioned best friend, John (inevitably, at least a few people make repeated appearances if I talk about music) has always heard music “separated”, while I’ve always heard it as a whole cloth. If you do either, it’s difficult not to respect this work. Taken as a whole, an astonishing variety of sounds–recognizably different even without detailed listening–never seem to cause any conflict or confusion about the sound or feeling of any song, other than the kind that is inherent to the subject matter present. If you take the same piece and start to dissect it, you suddenly realize just how complicated that generally delightful sound actually is. Some parts fade shortly after others come in, without ever openly advertising that fact. Some are mixed low or off to the side and serve only to lock into their places and smooth out the whole of it all. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of the way this record is put together, its reputation is undoubtedly deserved. It’s full and lush and varied, yet measured and economic, and all the parts both fit and mesh without exception.

Pet Sounds manages, in some way, to simultaneously run into the realms of psychedlia, art rock, even classical music, and simple pop: lyrically, it’s very innocent and sweet, occasionally even naïve, but never uncomfortably so, as it’s supported by the music so artfully. It’s catchy and bright and nice, and sad in the right parts, but it’s also dense and complicated and experimental and unique. It doesn’t show off the latter at all though: experimentation and complication are used in service of the final pop product. That’s not a common thing: usually you end up with something more like I Robot or Tarot Suite where those other elements make themselves known, perhaps even boast of their presence. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing in those instances–at least not intrinsically–but it’s something amazing to witness those things folded in so neatly there are no seams left.

If you don’t respect this album–and I do say “respect”, as opposed to “like”–you would be well advised, if you intend on expressing a stance on it, or music in many senses, to explore and dissect it anyway, to try to see what makes it tick. While occasionally that metaphor is used to emphasize the idea that you might dissect a living animal and be left with none of the soul or life that drives you to find the driving force in the first place, this is more like a watch or a clock: find the parts and separate them out to understand it, but put them back together, wind it up and watch it go–it won’t miss a beat.

  • Next Up: The Beatles – ?

Day Nine: The Association – Greatest Hits!

Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records ■  WS 1767
Released December, 1968

Produced by Bones Howe [1,2,3,4,5,9,10,12], The Association [7,13], Curt Boetticher [6,11], and Jerry Yester [8]

Side One: Side Two:
  1. The Time It Is Today
  2. Everything That Touches You
  3. Like Always
  4. Never My Love
  5. Requiem for the Masses
  6. Along Comes Mary
  1. Enter the Young
  2. No Fair at All
  3. Time for Livin’
  4. We Love [Us]
  5. Cherish
  6. Windy
  7. Six Man Band

I’ve never understood this about a lot of compilations, particularly in the 1960s: if you’re going to list every single song on the record on the front, why would you list them in an order different from the order they are actually pressed in? I’d almost suspect it’s a matter of graphic design, but “Like Always” kind of goofs up the formatting at the bottom (and “Windy” being placed above “Cherish” would’ve completed the sort of “arrow” shape better). It’s not really even a quibble, just something I find bizarre.

Out of my father’s collection of doubled records (not to be confused with double LPs) from which I previously mentioned drawing I Robot, I also drew this compilation–that might draw a sigh of relief of confusion from those who know of my general opposition to greatest hits, best ofs, and similar packages. Being progressive rock, The Alan Parsons Project, for all that some of their songs achieved some fame, remain somewhat niche in music history. The Association, on the other hand, had a greatest hits compilation after only three years in existence, though in that time they released four albums and 12 singles, with only four of those being non-album A-sides. Of course, this is because all of those singles peaked in the top 100 for the band, including a B-side (“Requiem for the Masses”). Five were top 10, and two of them were #1s (“Cherish” and “Windy”), with one even squeaking into a #2 spot (“Never My Love”). As such, other than a few exceptions that will be incredibly obvious when I get to them, this is probably the most “mainstream” or familiar album I picked up out of that lot.

I’d be inclined to call it odd that I would hazard a guess that The Association are not familiar to a lot of my generation if the name is thrown at them, but if you look back at the pop charts from days gone by, it’s increasingly obvious that a lot of charting music has not stood the test of time, at least with respect to availability and familiarity to new generations. It becomes humourous, sometimes, when people from my generation try to reach back and compare the popular music of now to then and lament the state of modern music, failing to realize the number of artists they are totally unaware of who topped the charts–plenty far, far more obscure than The Association.

If memory serves, my introduction to the band was via a much later compilation my father passed me, though I also picked up, after snagging the stack of records that included Greatest Hits!, their first and third albums (And Then…Along Comes the Association and Insight Out), the latter at the behest of my father visiting my then-employer during a new year clearance sale. I actually sold that copy of Insight Out for an absurd amount of money as an expanded release was announced–though it was a mono one, and my copy was a stereo one (likely the reason its out of print status was able to remain a price-driver). Even with all of that, I didn’t devote a ton of time to the band, as they always struck me as rather slight and somewhat “folky.” That’s not a fair thing to list as cause to avoid or ignore a band, but it has often been cause for me all the same. Perhaps it’s the association (ahem) it draws with the divergence of taste between myself and my father, as well as an overall indicator of some of our philosophical differences: he grew up–in the sense of high school and college–with this music, and has always identified as a pacifist (while he enjoys Die Hard, he notes that the joy of it is “watching Bruce Willis be a smartass” rather than any action setpieces, a sentiment I’m hard-pressed to disagree with), while I’ve grown up in a culture, and with friends, that is more embracing of violence as entertainment, and has a much stronger seed for aggression in music, as I grew up after heavy metal and punk were long established and even hardcore (punk) and extreme metal (death metal, black metal, etc.) were established.

If I really wanted to stand on this narrative, I’d pretend I went in to listen to this album (that isn’t just a strange grammatical construction: I have a room where I keep my records and my stereo, so I literally did “go in” to listen to it) with trepidation, heavy sighs or other indicators that I was not looking forward to it. I didn’t: there’s an excitement in exploring the releases I haven’t taken time to listen to, which is part of what I get out of all of this. There’s usually a surprise and something more interesting to find here that I might never have realized otherwise. It’s also fair to say that there are a few songs I’d be guaranteed to look forward to and enjoy.

The compilation is not constructed in chronological order at all, nor alphabetical or any other obvious order. “The Time It Is Today” opens Side One with a not-unexpected sound for a band often most reasonably referred to as “sunshine pop” (which is basically what it sounds like) and “baroque pop” (which is basically classically inflected pop music, as you also might expect of it), but then Joe Osborn’s bassline comes in and surprises me: it’s distinct and upfront, acting as a bit of a hook with a lovely slide to it that doesn’t feel at all like the kind of folk-y, harmony-oriented band I usually think of them as. Hal Blaine’s drums focus on the rim to keep the bottom end pretty much clear except for Osborn. It’s a vaguely psychedelic track, that matches the rather great album art it was originally released under and that art’s psychedelic vibe. It is a track from 1968, so it makes some sense.

With my ears now perked, we move on to “Everything That Touches You”, which comes from the same album, which is more in line with the sound I think of the band most far: heavy harmonies for much of the vocal work (which is where the “band” is usually present on the albums, rather than the instruments, many of which are the work of session musicians) and some heavy-handed romanticism. This isn’t too surprising, as the song comes from the pen of Terry Kirkman, one of the group’s leaders over the years, who was also responsible for “Cherish”.

“Like Always” is yet another track from Birthday, and it reminds me strongly of some deep cuts from The Lovin’ Spoonful (another 60’s band, most known for tracks like “Nashville Cats”, “Summer in the City”, “Do You Believe in Magic”, and “Daydream”, which is not to be confused with the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”), with a much looser gait, and vocals from Larry Ramos that are reminiscent of the Spoonful’s John Sebastian, descending through each line with only exception per verse. The lyrics (the song was written by Bob Alcivar, Tony Ortega, Larry Ramos) that have a cheerful down-on-his-luck sentiment that is also reminiscent of Sebastian’s songs.

“Never My Love” brings us back to the overbearing romanticism, middle school dance-feeling of “Everything That Touches You” and a number of Association singles from the 60s. It was written by Don and Dick Addrisi, who never had a hit for themselves as big as this one for the Association. The sentiment is simple–“You ask me if there’ll come a time/When I grow tired of you/Never my love/Never my love”, but the Addrisis, I have to say, manage this with greater aplomb than Kirkman (who does far better on his socially conscious tracks, I feel). The tone bounces appropriately: the expression is obviously to an existing lover, but carries a note of pain at doubt alongside it. It’s one of the few tracks with apparent guitar layers. It ends with a pretty great keyboard solo at the end.

The next track is the one my father was most emphatic to me about the quality of when I was pondering the purchase of Insight Out. It ties a bit back into his pacificism, I suppose, in that it’s a metaphorical song about  lost soldiers in the war occurring at the time, as seen through the story of a fallen matador. It’s a rather breath-taking song: it begins with semi-martial drumrolls before multi-layered, church-choral vocals (in Latin, no less) come in quite beautifully, before Kirkman relays the story of the matador, imploring mothers to turn away from life at home to recognize the loss of their sons, with a chorus that first describes the red blood “flowing thin” from the dying matador, the white of his lifeless skin, and the blue of the sky that was “the last thing that was seen by him”. I imagine you can catch the obvious connection there. Balance is an important thing to me, and this song has it: there’s no mistaking the intent of the song, but it holds up as the allegorical matador just as well. The musical hints Kirkman (who wrote the song) worked in are also clever. The martial drum rolls are later met with forlorn horns that bring to mind the image of somber and funereal moments. The song is longer by a full 40 seconds than the next longest track on the compilation–indeed, it was the longest song they released in all those albums and singles to this point.

Now, it would take a lot to follow up that track, and the compiler did his or her job: “Along Comes Mary” is the next song, which is a real corker of an upbeat track, complete with handclaps. It was written by Tandyn Almer, a friend of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and has lyrics that race to fit into each line until the title of the song comes in to start the chorus, helping to emphasize the sudden change the appearance of Mary brings to the life of the singer (in this case, James Yester). This marks the first appearance on this compilation of a flute as accent to the music, complete with trills.

Side Two opens with another of Kirkman’s more socially conscious tracks, “Enter the Young”, which first marked the opening of the debut album And Then…Along Comes the Association. The song is basically an endorsement of youth written by a man who was 26 at the time, seeming to then reflect a less self-aggrandizing attitude than one might think the sentiment come from, as that seems to imply a generation still rising as he sings. “Enter the young, yeah/Yeah, they’ve learned to think/Enter the young, yeah/More than you think they think/Not only learned to think, but to care/Not only learned to think, but to dare”.

“No Fair at All” is another of the romantically oriented songs, one written by “Along Comes Mary”‘s lead vocalist, James Yester. It sees the return of a prominent woodwind instrument (not a flute, but my ear is not refined enough at identifying them to be more specific) as solo emphasis for the song.

“Time for Livin'” is another Addrisi brothers single, which has a nice thumping bassline, and some nice bendy guitar bits that act as background accent for more triumphant sort of song, a notion emphasized by the prominent horns behind the chorus. The bassline is prominent again, being allowed to bridge the gap from chorus back to verse with just a little bit of solo playing. Ron Giguere (who wrote “The Time It Is Today”) and Larry Ramos share lead vocal duties on this one, and have less standard voices, which I tend to appreciate.

“We Love [Us]” is titled only “We Love” on the actual sleeve and labels for this compilation, but is titled “We Love Us” on Insight Out, from which it is derived. It’s a Ted Bluechel, Jr. song (making it another written by an actual member of The Association), and it’s yet another of the romantically oriented songs–it gets hard not to stack them against each other, as they are all so overblown in their sentiments (“Her laughing, her crying/Her caring, her sharing/Of my life means more to me/Than all the wealth and fame that fortune brings to me”) and generally more familiar arrangements keep them of a kind. Now, this is one that seems to be married to a harpsichord (!) as the melody-carrying instrument, which is a bit unusual–though I might be mistaken about what type of keys we’re talking about exactly.

“Cherish” is Terry Kirkman’s contribution to the “romantic songs” oeuvre for the band, with another vocal-racing chorus that one hopes is just slightly awkward only because of a drive to rhyme: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I had told you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you/Into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you”. It’s a lyric that will make some people more uncomfortable than others, but feels most like an attempt to express the kind of feelings many of us experience–the whole song is really about finding a word that is more accurate than “want” or “need” or even “love” to describe the feelings you have for another person. It does really find its feet with the arrangement, which uses bells, chimes, and vocals to match those, as well as a wonderful set of harmonized vocal acrobatics for the ending of the lines “Cherish is the word I use to describe/All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside”.

The next song brings us back from the rather syrupy end of the Association with Ruthan Friedman’s “Windy”, which actually has a weird second billing on the album cover for Insight Out (which no pedantic folks have turned to call Insight Out/Windy, oddly enough). We see the return of the keys I remain convinced (probably wrongly) are related to harpsichords, as well as more flute. The rhythm, down to the vocal lines, is toe-tapping and catchy, and has some great background harmonies, with the dips and rise of “Who’s..” beginning the repetitions at the end of the song, which begins to break off in multiple directions at the end.

“Six Man Band” ends the release with the single released closest to the album’s own release, having hit the charts in July of 1968, a few months after Birthday was released. It’s a bit of a shocker for the group, with a heavily distorted guitar playing a clear lead throughout the song, with a great lick sliding up and down the neck, and some finger picking to match. By far the most guitar-dominated track on the album, which falls out to close the song and the album. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for it, but I don’t have that information close to hand (or even in easy reach, so far as I can tell).

There are some excellent tunes on here that anyone and everyone should check out, and a few everybody should know, but taking the whole thing in means you’d better have a high tolerance for sweet, naïve romanticism, or else you may require insulin by the end. The stuff doesn’t bother me when done properly (by which I mean generally lending musicality to the affair), so it doesn’t really get to me much here, but it could easily overload plenty of people I know.

Still, make sure to check out “Along Comes Mary” (which I still think should’ve been their biggest single, but only hit #7), “Windy”, and especially “Requiem for the Masses”.

Next Up: The Asylum Choir – Asylum Choir II

Day Six: Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies | SAP

Columbia Records ■ C2 57804
January 24, 1994
Jar of Flies
Produced by
Alice in Chains
Engineered by Toby Wright
Produced by
Alice in Chains and Rick Parash[a]r
Jar of Flies
Originally released January 25, 1994
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Rotten Apple
  2. Nutshell
  3. I Stay Away
  4. No Excuses
  5. Whale and Wasp
  1. Don’t Follow
  2. Swing on This
Originally released February 4, 1992
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Brother
  2. Got Me Wrong
  3. Right Turn
  4. Am I Inside
  5. [Love Song Take 1]
[Etching of
Alice in Chains Logo]

No two ways about it: this is a weird release. If you expand the image above by clicking on it, you can see the etching I refer to on side four (no, I didn’t “play” it, I just flipped the second record over for the picture). Even outside the fact that it’s a 3-sided release on a format that can only be manufactured with even numbers of sides, this is a combination of two EPs that, in total runtime, would necessitate two records even if they weren’t split one on a record or were re-configured to maximize the space on each side of a record.

Now, logistics aside, the release does make a kind of sense: Sap (often stylized as “SAP,” though this has always seemed weird to me) is thought of as an “acoustic” EP (though it isn’t entirely) and Jar of Flies is also a clean, subdued record in the Alice discography, with a fair bit of acoustic work in it as well. While We Die Young was also an extended play release, it was composed of tracks that appeared on their first album, Facelift, and was considered a promotional release anyway. That means that, in addition to the acoustic/relaxed sort of tone, we’re now compiling all the EPs Alice made. 
They are also kind of book-ends and transitional pieces for their work as a whole: SAP was released after the consistent intensities and relatively uniform sound of 1990’s Facelift, preceding the more varied and classic Dirt by only a few months, which only lead to Jar of Flies and finally the self-titled album (also known as “Tripod” thanks to the three-legged dog that graces the cover). That said, the EPs are placed in reverse chronological order as the gatefold cover above implies: the cover art for SAP is the back cover and Jar of Flies is on the front, with the LP side designations to match. So, while I would prefer to save the most familiar (and favourite) for last as a build up, Jar of Flies came first in my listening and so will come first here.
Jar of Flies was, as I mentioned, considered an EP on its release in 1994–there’s even video of the band saying “Screw it, let’s just release an EP,” in the studio at the time. Despite that, the release runs over 30 minutes (albeit only just) and does contain 7 tracks, which is somewhat respectable–or was a few decades before its release, anyway. In the 80s it might have been termed a “mini album,” but that term never seemed to catch on, as it just seems like splitting heirs after the three major types (album, EP, single–mini-album being placed between the first two). Apparently, it was the first ever EP to reach #1 in the charts, as well as the first release to do so for Alice themselves.
During my first foray into “creative writing” in college, I found myself saddled with the assignment to write about a song that I associated with an event, and to describe the event in question via the song I chose. I was a bit stuck: I don’t really listen to music in that way at all, having settled into albums for listening quite distinctly in high school, and even, to be honest, earlier as young as I was and owner of music, even before it was something I was passionate about. Still, I was left with the idea that Jar of Flies was the way to do it–arbitrarily (or maybe carefully) choosing a song from the release for the assignment. It ended up annoying my sensibilities too thoroughly and I dropped the class before ever really even beginning–let alone completing–the assignment, though.
My experience with trying to tie Jar of Flies to my life, however, was indicative of how strong the mood of this release is. It opens with Mike Inez laying down a very thick bass line that has a weight that automatically drags the tone of the music–and the room–down to the proper emotional state for what is to come. Jerry Cantrell wails in on a talkbox to accent Inez, who continues to carry the song proper as Sean Kinney works his drums in with just a few light touches on the hi-hat before Inez’s bassline is worked in against a standing set of guitar licks to bring the song to its verses: Layne Staley begins each line with “Hey ah na na,” but it’s so thoroughly drained of energy that you don’t even get the feeling it’s strangely juxtaposed. Low energy notwithstanding, the notes are chosen and move, left with “na na” singing that is entirely other than what you would expect from such fare. Layne’s lyrics are typically dark: “What I see is unreal/I’ve written my own part/Eat of the apple so young/I’m crawling back to start.” The final effects Jerry works in on his guitar make it sound almost as if he is tapping out the notes against the surface of a liquid, hitting the right spots to make just the right noises and rippling just slightly as he taps against them.
Inez is not always so prominent, but he really sets the tone, even as Layne’s hazily sharpened vocals and Cantrell’s noodling give it flavours of distinction. This is perhaps appropriate: he has a co-writing credit for the music on “Rotten Apple.” Inez is immediately less apparent on “Nutshell,” though, which could easily be a purely acoustic song, with Inez and Kinney now acting more as the accent and fill for the sound of the song, which is based on a relatively simple looping chord progression that lets Layne’s vocals take center stage: “And yet I fight this battle all alone/No one to cry to/No place to call home,” which is then followed by an electric lead from Cantrell that drives home the isolation, while Staley’s voice turns to subtle, bittersweet “Oohs.” The song, unlike many on the album, does not experience much in the way of change, but avoids wearing out its welcome quite easily.
“I Stay Away” was a top ten single, and the accompanying video was a rather creative and dark stop motion number, based heavily on the same colour palette as the jacket art–greens, yellows and oranges: murky and swampy, but with the warmth of life, even if it isn’t necessarily cuddly life. Much like the effort involved in an animated video as compared to a performance one, the song itself stands out on the album. There’s a string section to really bring the chorus home: as Layne sings out the title and the strings of Matthew Weiss, Rebecca Clemons-Smith, April Acevez and Justine Foy climb to the heights of drama to maintain the momentum he builds and carry it that much higher. Kinney uses one of his more intricate beats for the song, while Inez gives the bottom end curves and bounce to keep the song hopping. Cantrell uses more squalls and distortion than blues, the other strings taking his usual placement.
“No Excuses” is built on an unusual lollopping beat that makes full use of Kinney’s kit, while Inez is left again driving the song. Cantrell and Layne explicitly share vocal duties for the first time on this release, likely indicative of Cantrell’s role in writing the lyrics of the song, while he mostly uses very open, ringing chords primarily throughout the song until ripping into a bluesier solo that has a more standard placement in the song–again, probably a reflection of his differing role, vocally. 
“Whale and Wasp” was apparently released as a promotional single, which is kind of amazing. The song is instrumental, and an exception in the Alice catalogue for that. Cantrell begins it with wailing bends over a more subtle finger-picked melody, sounds reminiscent of the hook in the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” but more aching and pained, even as the strings make their second clear appearance for a ray of warmth, albeit a tempered kind–though that bend returns immediately after their brief interlude to echo out into the distance and emphasize the open space of the song. The lead does move to a more complete melody line over the other instrumentation, again warmer but not yet truly warm–I’m tempted to call it a minor key, but my instincts are not a musical education and have no authority to make such a claim.
“Don’t Follow” is the second track (after “No Excuses”) to be written exclusively by Jerry Cantrell (though he also wrote “Whale and Wasp,” these two include credits to him for the lyrics) and was the last single released after No Excuses” with was a number one. “Don’t Follow,” though, is one of the three pieces I will play if I’m alone and the mood strikes me. The guitars I have, though they are covered in dust without exception mostly, are almost always left tuned a half-step down so that I can pick them up and fumble my way through “Don’t Follow,” “Nutshell,” or “Desolate Ways” (an odd little guitar instrumental from Morbid Angel’s ex-second guitarist, Richard Brunelle). This marks the only occasion on the album that Jerry takes the focus of the vocals, finger-picking a simple pattern until the song shifts gears and the harmonica of David Atkinson comes in, carrying with it Mike Inez and Sean Kinney, who serve as introduction for the assertion of control by Layne, whose voice has a different tenor to Cantrell’s, even as they often harmonize in their music. Neither sings cheerful lyrics, but Staley sings with a more positive sort of energy, until it all fades back to the finger-picked guitar of Cantrell alone, who intones just “Say goodbye, don’t follow,” as the song ends.
“Swing on This” is the odd song out on the release: the feel is indeed “swinging,” as Inez dances across the bass and the notion of “swing” doesn’t seem out of place at all, until Layne sings: “Let me be, I’m all right/Can’t you see I’m just fine?/Little skinny, okay, I’m asleep anyway,” and his known drug problems make the sentiment behind all that a little more unpleasant, and abundantly clear. Still, for all that the song is tonally in place, its more bouncy and cheerful melody–other than the chorus–feels a bit out of place in an otherwise rather somber, achingly beautiful release.
Now–SAP. Perhaps you can see why I might have preferred this to run in the other direction: how do you follow Jar of Flies? While Jar is seven songs, SAP is really just four, plus one amusing track of intentional ridiculousness. Like Jar, SAP is somber and downcast, but more of the feeling of a small band playing on a back porch near a swamp–laidback and heavily acoustic, resembling more a jam-session than a deliberate studio recording, even if the production couldn’t be said to have suffered enough to imply a more live and haphazard recording environment. Like Facelift, SAP is largely the compositional work of Jerry Cantrell alone: he wrote the music for all four (normal) songs, and the lyrics for three of them.
“Brother” and “Am I Inside,” the songs that begin and end the song have guest vocal accenting from Heart’s Ann Wilson to great effect–she brings something more to the voices of Layne and Jerry, a kind of power neither one of them can quite manage. Even as Jerry is the undercurrent to Layne’s tide, neither can manage what she can. “Got Me Wrong” sounds like a vehicle moving on oblong wheels, rumbling rapidly for a moment before pausing in the air to crash back down as it hits that long side. Of course, this is the song that most emphasizes the misnomer “acoustic EP,” as Jerry plays a very clearly distorted guitar as part of the backing for the song–even if the primary drive is an acoustic one.
“Right Turn” is actually credited to “Alice Mudgarden,” a bit of a play on the appearances of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who contribute vocals to the song, which begins as a simple guitar, bass and vocal song. Chris enters after the verse and brings his more subdued vocals to the song, though he eventually makes his mark with some of the range and histrionics he was more known for in the 80s after Layne and Mark take their turns on verses, as the whole range of vocalists begins to sing together and in opposition, the song blurring into a chorus of voices all shouting to each other.
“Am I Inside” is the most foreboding of songs, though it flattens out into a sort of disquieting calmness with a note just off enough to make you wary. Ann’s second run at vocals bring a distant echo to Layne’s cry of, “Black is how I feel/So this is how it feels to be free” Which ends with a question, and then an empty space to emphasize how hollow the realization is. When the bongos (!) come in, Ann becomes more soulful in her approach to the vocals, as the song itself seems to almost cheer up before circling back to darkness.
“Love Song Take 1” is the comment made by (most likely) Sean Kinney as his song begins, hidden and unmentioned on both CD and vinyl releases: it’s an intentionally weird and amusing mishmash of discordant sounds and off-kilter piano, megaphone vocals, faux-flatulence (yes, really!) and instruments that sound as if they might be being played with elbows or other inaccurate body parts, followed by pounding on the drums and piano in unison. It’s a weird end to the whole set, and was always a weird ending to even SAP alone. When he begins shouting “Rae Dawn Chong” and “kiss the midget,” you know something has gone wrong. Or right?
I don’t know what to make of the release as a whole, even as all the songs on it are excellent: It feels like a pretty lame attempt to rush out the idea of a double record, with Jar of Flies balanced very strangely on its respective record, not split remotely evenly, only two tracks appearing on side two. Sap works out fine as a single record, but the set just seems a bit off and careless in its construction.
Still, I’m not going to complain.
I’ve got Jar of Flies on vinyl now, after all.

Copies are available at Discogs, including some on the orange/blue coloured vinyl with a slightly altered etching on Side 4.

Next Up: Aphex Twin – ?