The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]

Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).

Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).


Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2011)

ATO Records ■ ATO 0093
Released February 15, 2011

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by David Barbe
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Do Believe
  2. Go-Go Boots
  3. Dancin’ Ricky
  4. Cartoon Gold
  1. Ray’s Automatic Weapon
  2. Everybody Needs Love
  3. Assholes
  4. The Weakest Man
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Used to Be a Cop
  2. I Hear You Hummin’
  3. The Fireplace Poker
  1. Where’s Eddie
  2. The Thanksgiving Filter
  3. Pulaski
  4. Mercy Buckets

I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.

It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.

The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.

So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.

It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.

I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.

The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.

Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.

John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.

Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.

The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.

While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)

There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…”  It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.

The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.

A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact. 

Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.

“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.

The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”

Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.

“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.

I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.

I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.

¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.

²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.

Day Fifty-Two – Needle Scratch: The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt

Yep Roc Records ■ YEP-2015

Released October 26, 1999
(Vinyl released December 11, 2012)

Produced by Byron Mckay and John Howie, Jr.
Engineered by Byron McKay
Mastered by Tim Harper

Side One: Side Two:
  1. If Only You Were Mine
  2. Just Someone I Used to Know
  3. We Had It All
  4. Suppose Tonight Could Be Our Last
  1. Counting the Hours
  2. (I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again
  3. One Paper Kid

This will mark the second time I’ve fiddled with the alphabet in writing here, but I think my reasons have been solid in their non-arbitrary nature at both times–last time, I was covering an album on its release, and this time, well, I’d just been hoping to see a Two Dollar Pistols vinyl release to put up here anyway, and within days of stating this “aloud” this appeared before me for order, which I proceeded to place immediately (of course!). In and of itself, that would be a bit of a cheat as there are other albums I’ve deliberately looked up to keep my end-of-letter lists short, but this one is a release by someone who has been open and supportive of both of my attempts at writing, including this very blog. That, too, wouldn’t necessarily dictate shifting the order of writing, but the fact that it’s his birthday? That, I can make an exception for.

In my time back at Borders, one of the mangers I worked under was a guy named Gerald, whose name will crop up here and there throughout this particular set of writings (as it often did at my prior blog). He was largely responsible for the musical guests we occasionally had in the store, the curation of our rather extensive local music section, and records himself. As a result, in the early days of my time there, I managed to see Lost in the Trees before they apparently got indie-big (I still have a signed copy of their first EP, which makes reference, as many signatures I have do, to my hat and their appreciation of it–don’t ask me why that happens. It just does.), and scattered other bits from a local scene that has had nationwide fame (or at least heavy regional) at various times over the years.

One of the first bands to tromp across the total-absence-of-a-stage while I was there was, of course, the Two Dollar Pistols. At the time, they were promoting the release of 2007’s Here Tomorrow, Gone Today and my scheduling for the day meant I only ended up catching half the set myself (though I spent a good deal of my lunch break listening to them when I heard them). I picked that album up, blissfully unaware of anything older, newer, or otherwise–I was not yet too deep into my music collecting phase (the difference then to now is admittedly astonishing), and beginning my lengthy movie-focused phase of life.

As time went on, I began to see Pistols vocalist/guitarist John Howie, Jr. in the store regularly just picking things up the way everyone else did–a few CDs here, a few books there, and we spoke a handful of times as time went on. But it was around the time the store was closing that we probably had our first most direct conversation, as I mentioned appreciating his presence and performances in the store, and he responded with what might have been the only sincere and sympathetic comment I heard in all those few frantic weeks. Most wouldn’t even consider the approaching unemployment, while others would act as if it had no relation to their ensuing demands for better discounts (which were nothing new anyway)–but he actually turned it around and thanked us as a store for being good to him.

I last ran into him (in person, at least!) when he was playing with his new band, The Rosewood Bluff, at Schoolkids in Raleigh for Record Store Day last year, not too long before I ended up moving out of the area. We caught up a bit on what had gone on since the store closing (briefly, mind you), and I got to catch the performance they put on that day (which I strongly recommend as an experience, if you have the chance).

It’s an odd thing, really–I grew up riding a bus to school, and on it was unable to avoid the music that played on country radio for most of those years, all of it the middle phase of modern country in the sense it is most commonly employed. It rarely did much for me, though I never forgot the words of a music teacher when I was youngest–almost anything becomes familiar and earwormy after you hear it enough, and a song here or there would appeal, but largely I was not too big on it. As someone who, especially in those years, did not much do exploratory listening, it was all I understood country to be. Sure, my dad had no taste for that sound, but did (and does) have a taste for country all the same–it’s just the kind you’d hear in the decades prior, largely, and in the nascent (eventually growing, now rather large) “alternative country” scene. It was probably dabbling in Lyle Lovett (thanks to my father, as well as the further endorsement of a guy I used to work with who swung more to the Robert Earl Keen side of that former roommate pairing) that opened me up most distinctly to hearing country outside what I understood it to be.

The Two Dollar Pistols were probably what broke me most completely out of that mindset, as I detected none of the glaring exceptions that would come with Lovett (by his third album no less– Lyle Lovett and His Large Band), just something that sounded purely like country. Now, perhaps–perhaps where we have “country-fried rock”, they were “rock-seared country”, but lyrically, musically, tonally–there was no question about where the Two Dollar Pistols came from. Indeed, when I pulled out a copy of You Ruined Everything, I was accused of listening to music that was not “me” but my father’s. Some have learned by now that it’s best not to think one has a handle on my tastes (especially their breadth), but once in a while someone is still surprised to find I like something.

Because most people I know come from similar backgrounds in understanding what “country music” is, or even know the older stuff and automatically run from the twang (to be fair, if you don’t stop and listen, it does leave a mind stuck in the modern precept instead–the recent stuff did, of course, come out of those sounds), I know that, like all of my metal, this is going to be a hard sell for some people I know. Probably a lot of them. That, I suppose, is why the volume of background I include here–to really establish a human being in this (something I always find helpful in grasping a foreign sound), as well as clarify how I came to a place of appreciation that many wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) expect of me, and so might not otherwise expect of themselves.

The EP (it’s just shy of 25 minutes overall) opens with one of the two songs John wrote with Tift, “If Only You Were Mine”. It’s a deliberately paced track, sawed in on the fiddle of Pistols alum Jon Kemppainen, with a bit of a waltz to the beat’s alternation of Ellen Gray’s bass and guitars (handled in acoustic form by our two vocalists), though it’s remains in 4/4. Howie’s is the first voice we hear, a confident and and fluid baritone, singing lyrics of the oppressive lost-love melodrama that country is most known for (and often fits the bill for Howie’s solo lyrics, as well). Greg Readling of Chatham County Line’s (more locals!) pedal steel wafts across the track, more subdued than the accents of Kemppainen’s more plaintive draws on his fiddle. At the halting chords of the chorus, Merritt’s voice joins John’s for a fantastic duet that balances his low-end rumble to her gentle and classic–in the Emmylou sense–vocals, which she uses fully alongside him as match rather than highlight or shadow. As you might expect, Tift takes on the second verse, but her voice takes on its own timbre and quality, not quite so high as she sings for the chorus’s blend, instead using those heights for emphasis.

Jack Clement’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” follows, driven by Readling’s pedal steel, and it’s more “complete” as a duet, Tift and John singing alongside each other, rendering the brave-faced sadness of un-admitted heartache with just the right tinge of regret and distant remembrance in their voices. John pulls at the pain as if straight from the gut, while Tift’s voice falters ever-so-slightly in its confident expression regularly, as if the proud declaration that she does not tell those looking at the photo of someone she “used to know” about how much that hurts is itself a reminder of the very pain she isn’t admitting. Michael Krause shines on a finger-picked out electric guitar solo that rolls around itself and tumbles downward at its end to make room for a more eased feature of Kemppainen’s fiddle. Maybe it’s having so many performances to draw from–George Jones, for whom John has opened, Emmylou Harris, to whom Tift has been compared, and even the duet from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (who had a country-charts hit with it)–or maybe it’s because a cover allows for pure interpretation within a pre-defined space, some combination of the two, or plain old serendipity (maybe synchronicity?), but this might be their best vocals on the release.

An unidentified (but excellent, whoever it is!) harmonica and a sad set of fret-slides from Krause bring us into Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals’s “We Had It All” (perhaps most famously rendered by Waylon Jennings, but recorded by a slew of country stars, much like the prior track), which allows Tift the vocal spotlight, singing sadly of happy memories lost, full of, not regret or hurt so much as accepted blues. John joining for the phrase, “You and me we had it all”, and transitioning the next lines into his voice instead, his voice gentle and controlled but broken by that same loss, yet most confident as he sings, “You were the best thing in my life that I recall”. Their voices stay united after they again name what was lost, both voices reaching up to cry out for what is lost and can’t be regained, but is seen briefly in dreams. Their voices begin to soften and stumble–not in pitch, not in tempo, but in their strength–as they are lost to the remembrance of just how good times were. Krause’s following solo is not blazing, but moves a a greater clip, burning through it’s time with a different kind of fire. Do not miss out on their voices hesitating and indecisive at their last note, unsure whether to be peaceful in memory or sad at present, turning up and down and only briefly meeting.

George Jones’s actual songwriting (co-written by Melba Montgomery) appears in the next track, as Merritt and Howie tackle “Suppose Tonight Would Be Our Last”, a much more uptempo number after the rolling sadness that fills the middle of Side One. The more upbeat fiddle of Kemppainen defines the musical tone, even as the lyrics are not quite so upbeat. John and Tift match Kemppainen in this instead, performing more as musical duet than acting as those expressing the feelings personally–the kind of duet you’d expect to see two country stars turn and look at each other to sing onstage, thoughtful lyrics carrying themselves and unconcerned with the tune that carries them, which is more interested in being cheerful. David Newton’s drumming really shines here–almost brush-like restraint on the snares, and a momentary turn to a near-martial approach at the traded voices of the bridge. Our two vocalists also get a chance to show off their voices less as emotively determined than as instruments.

The second side starts with the second (and last) original the two put together for this release, Krause’s electric introducing us to “Counting the Hours”, which is largely a John Howie, Jr. performance as it starts, Tift mostly using her voice to accent his, which seems appropriate for the song’s construction–“It just seems to get harder to smile”, John sings alone, and the isolation of his voice in an album where it’s usually not alone underlines that difficulty perfectly, which means we’re completely ready for Tift to join him again for the chorus–and take over for the second verse. Unlike on his voice, she remains alone, vocally, for it–and this works because of something to do with how we hear female voices–whether it’s expectation, tradition, or some actual difference in the way we hear pitches, it functions as somewhat fragile, but fully realized in its isolation.

Charley Pride’s hit “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” (written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens) is the penultimate track on the release, and starts with harmonized guitar and fiddle, both of which disappear for Howie’s voice to ride alone with Gray’s bass and Newton’s drums. Readling weaves pedal steel in intermittently, but it is largely sparse until Tift’s subdued and quiet voice slips in beneath John’s for the song’s title, sounding even more as if she feels truth in “And I’m so afraid of losing you again”, his voice full and soaring through the chorus, while hers has the edge of fear in it, even as she, too, expands hers for those moments. When she takes on the second verse, her voice straddles the line between fragility and power, projecting and broad, but tinged with caution and that same fear in her harmonies. There’s a brilliant moment at the end, as they repeat that title, and it seems that Howie loses his confidence and Merritt regains hers.

The EP closes with a stunner–the Walter Martin Cowart-penned former Emmylou Harris/Willie Nelson duet, “One Paper Kid”. Largely acoustic guitars at a greater volume and fuller sound, Tift sings alone with the wisdom, confidence, and maturity of a life lived and a story told. Readling’s pedal steel is a gilding on the acoustics, John’s voice the supporting low-end to Tift’s dusty, advisory vocals. He bolsters the chorus, as she relents in her own performance to almost allow for a trade in emphasis, though they gradually grow together into a single voice, the song sad in a way that’s not quite that of the lost loves of the earlier ones, so much as one that elicits past memories, rather than describing them, fearing the loss of them, or reveling miserably within them. And then their voice just–hang, drifting off into solitude, rather than isolation or desolation, just a chosen moment away from everyone, not for relief, but out of necessity.

It’s difficult to impress upon anyone not interested in country how good this release is. These are excellent performances all around, but the taste in covers should indicate that already to the familiar, and continue the relative meaningless nature of it all to those who aren’t. I can’t claim to be a close friend of Mr. Howie’s, so I should hope this won’t be taken as any attempt to push for work on some level of extreme bias–I’m proudly open-minded, rather egalitarian in my tastes, but that doesn’t ever reflect a denial of poor quality, except insofar as the subjective stances that often stem from notions about particular kinds of vocal styling or instrumentation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the three genres that suffer this most often have no time for each other, but can be boiled down to difficulties people experience with those three things? Whether it’s a growl, a twang, or a rhythmic orientation instead of a tonal one–sampling and electronic reproduction, aggression and speed, or distinctive and stylistically inseparable instruments and play-styles, metal, country, and rap inspire the most passionate defense, denials, refusals, and embraces?

I think that there’s a good chance this release could bridge the gap for some, though I know that pedal steel and fiddle can be Pavlovian stimuli for some, as they once were for me. But if you give the record time, sit and listen and find the threads of emotion and performance, particularly in that instrument we are almost all most readily drawn to (as we almost all have experience using our voice in some way, but have not all even touched guitars, drums, basses or othe instruments)–listen to John and Tift, and gather that there’s that sense of emotional gravitas infused with respect for tradition, a bit of a nudge or wink to the lyrical melodrama of country (which I don’t mean as unique–most stars of the past, at the least, also seemed to be aware of the depths and heights they aimed for, and embraced that happily).

Still, all else aside: Happy birthday, John!

Day Forty: The Clash – Combat Rock

CBS/Epic Records ■ FMLN 2/PE 37689
Released May 14, 1982
Mixed by Glyn Johns

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Know Your Rights
  2. Car Jamming
  3. Should I Stay or Should I Go
  4. Rock the Casbah
  5. Red Angel Dragnet
  6. Straight to Hell
  1. Overpowered by Funk
  2. Atom Tan
  3. Sean Flynn
  4. Ghetto Defendant
  5. Inoculated City
  6. Death Is a Star

There has not yet been a poll more frustrating than the one for The Clash. I own four of five albums on vinyl (no, there aren’t six, you’re imagining things), and at no moment was there a completely clear choice from the people I know who participated. I had three people whose votes I could guess, and all ended up confirming to me that I’d guessed correctly. One unsurprisingly went up for Sandinista!, not because it’s weird, but because he likes weird things. Another went for Give ‘Em Enough Rope because he felt he’d paid it the least attention, and undeservedly so (I’m inclined toward the same, and my copy was a rather special gift, actually). Another went for Combat Rock because it was a favourite of his (which I knew). I had a few more conversations–two who noted their Clash-y inexperience, one suggesting his exclusive familiarity with London Calling meant perhaps he should choose a different record to learn something, another suggesting that because she only knew London Calling, it would be most comfortable to read about. And let’s face it: usually we all read about the records we know already unless we’re deliberately seeking one out.¹ There’s not much frame of reference to understand the description of the unfamiliar, after all.

I was asked by one person what my vote was for–I admitted that I don’t actually vote in these. It would be silly, in a way: the point is to remove my opinion from the choice, as my opinion is the end result, and that would pre-colour it. I also couldn’t really decide. Rope was a present and I often defiantly name it as a favourite (though Side Two occasionally loses me). Sandinista! is a cool and absurdly varied album, but it’s also a 3xLP, and, unlike the Caustic Window compilation, those LPs play at 33 1/3, not 45rpm. I can’t help but cover every track in the interest of talking about a whole album, so that would’ve been masochistic. Combat Rock is an album my friend Brian and I agreed was one we both lost interest in pretty easily. London Calling I found myself inclined to think of as I did Pet Sounds: what in the world am I supposed to say about one of the most influential and important rock albums ever? I love it a little more personally than Pet Sounds (or even Abbey Road), but it’s still daunting.

In the end, it came around to Combat Rock–by a hair, squeezing out over the classicists and London Calling. This is the only Clash reissue–as opposed to those I’d term “repress” as they came within the standing heyday of vinyl as the primary format for recorded music–that I own, and London Calling has a few issues in the copy that sits on my shelf. It’s also, as I always like, an excuse to give more time to an album I’m not otherwise inclined toward. I actually forgot I didn’t own it on CD for some years, only managing to purchase it years after acquiring the rest, and even doubling up with–yes, intentionally–compilations (Super Black Market Clash, The Singles, and The Essential Clash). It did just squeak in before I got the completely ridiculous 19 CD singles collection (no, that isn’t a typo), but the fact that I really couldn’t remember I had it says something about how much I listen to it.

Of course it’s all very weird: London Calling is, by far, the strongest album they produced. The Clash (the one I do not own on vinyl) is confused by its rather striking differences in U.S./U.K. release, with a number of tracks dropped and added in the standard “Quick, put some more singles on there!” fashion. Sandinista! suffers more sprawl than any 2xLP (and London Calling is one of those) possibly could, running for almost two and a half hours. Give ‘Em Enough Rope has an amazing opening trio it couldn’t live up to afterward no matter how good what followed was. And, to be totally honest, a lot of my favourite Clash songs are B-Sides, if I really think about it. I threatened at one point to pull out my Black Market Clash 10″ instead, but a shortened EP when I have four albums would be silly. Still, it does have “The Prisoner” and “The City of the Dead”, so it would be the sweetest of “punishments”.

“This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” Joe Strummer yells as “Know Your Rights” starts, and then the clatter of staccato, metallic guitars begins slashing downward on each beat, Paul Simonon’s bass thumping along happily and more melodiously, Topper Headon keeping the beat steady. Sarcastic and clearly angry, Joe lists the rights of the disenfranchised and destitute: the right to not be murdered (except by policemen and aristocrats), the right to food (after a little “humiliation, investigation”), and the right to free speech (unless you exercise it). Which, of course, covers it, so far as the world seems to be concerned, as Joe (quite publicly) saw it. Simonon makes the song pop, in spite of the bitter satirical nature and the near-atonal guitars–something of the nature of the Clash as a whole to marry the two.

“Car Jamming” has big, tight, “tub” drum sounds and semi-Diddley² guitars, though this time Simonon largely follows Topper. The backing vocals contrast with Joe’s rough, throaty-vocals, with a cheerful “In a car jam!” answer to his lead vocals. Strange synths wobble and warp, theremin-style, through the middle of the track, as Joe continues his description of the variance of the social strata’s experience, largely focusing on characters representing the homeless and the lost veterans. The slightest of ties to the Congo (the beat, the choral nature of the backing vocals) are subtly emphasized with references to Missa Luba (a Congolese arrangement of the Latin Mass), and the idea of a “multi-national anthem” drowning it out, as means of affirming the greater pride and majority of the common man, as it were. That sounds a lot more pretentious than Joe manages, who successfully avoided the sense of being anything but, if you’ll pardon me, a “regular Joe”, in all his life.

There are two Clash songs that I think everyone might know, whether they realize it or not. Oddly, neither is on London Calling, and both are here. The first is the third track on the album, and that is “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, a Mick Jones-led stomper that calls back to the “hidden” track “Train in Vain” that is on London Calling. After the politicization of Strummer’s opening vocals (and probably lyrics, though the album as a whole is credited to “The Clash”), Mick’s half-plaintive, half-eye-rolled request for clarity in a relationship is a big jump in tone. It manages to squeak its way into place with a matching production style, but still stands out. While the song maintains the rhythmic emphasis that precedes it, the melody of the guitars, as well as the little touches of lead in them, set the song distinctly apart in its distinctly poppy nature. The riff is monolithic at this point, readily identified, and easily so, because it plays along when the song opens, the second guitar that joins just playing a slightly more distorted version of it. Mick’s voice is also more interested in melody than Joe’s, and Topper’s drums are bigger and more arena-ready, which is only right for the song. When the song turns its speed up a few notches, Topper’s drums sound something like Motown-style barn-burners (though the echo on them is a bit more Stax–the overall production being neither, though). Handclaps work their way in appropriately, and Joe, ever-unusual, sings the backing vocals in Ecuadoran Spanish (the only translation available to him at the time).

And this is the other Clash song of endless popularity: “Rock the Casbah”. Neither one of these songs would make anyone say, “Oh, right, punk!” despite the fact that the Clash’s punk credentials (even if rarely self-described) are questioned only by the most (rather ironic) uptight of punk purists. Topper Headon plays a wild and boogie-woogie piano tune to open the song that is one of the best intros around, especially married as it is to handclaps in enthusiastic rhythm that just barely avoids “Take the Money and Run”³ levels of need to clap along. Joe finds a bit more easy humour in his lyrics here, the theme not too far from “Car Jamming”, but more absurd. The king of an unknown land attempts to shut down all attempts to boogie, and is thwarted by all his subjects’ refusal to follow his orders (despite the actual reality of Kohmeini flogging owners of disco records in real-life Iran, the inspiration for Joe’s lyrics). Mick’s Pac-Man watch makes a bewildering set of appearances halfway through the song (no, it’s not a cell phone), but the whole thing is stupidly joyous and danceable. The chorus–largely Mick’s voice–and the way “Sharif don’t like it!” is a hook like few others, and “Rockin’ the Casbah/Rock the Casbah” is thrown back at it with a hint of rebellion that one cannot help but join in with.

The first of a few rather odd vocal guest appearances, Kosmo Vinyl (sometime manager of the Clash) appears in “Red Angel Dragnet” quoting Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle in the middle of a Paul Simonon-sung song–the dub-like inflections that recall “Guns of Brixton” make this a rather logical choice, and the spoken-word style, near-monotone delivery Simonon favours fits quite well over this backing (especially the organ flavouring and backing vocals that sing their gentle, restrained but energized chorus).

The slow downward slide of muted guitar chords, the thumping beat of bass drum and the sustained whine of electronics that open “Straight to Hell” are actually quite pretty, and when they become a rather African-influenced beat and clean forward pushes of laidback guitar, it’s only that much more. Joe sings a bit more at ease, playing a bit more with a voice that is distinct and capable of more than the near shouts that mark a lot of his work here. The subject matter is pure Clash-era Strummer: cynical, critical, and empathetic with steel mill workers, abandoned children, and those who see the darker or nonexistent facets of the American Dream. The music and his voice, though, hint a lot at the work he would do with the Mescaleros fifteen and twenty years later, and it’s actually a great song–which I guess the band knew, as it was part of a Double-A with “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. As pretty as the song is, especially the guitar work (which sounds more like Mick Jones’s, unsurprisingly in this), is very bleak and dark.

I was actually inclined to suggest that “Overpowered by Funk” did not remind me of funk at all, but the first thing I thought of at the intro was actually James Brown. Whoops! That said, it moves off into mostly other territory following this: a lot of the album is extremely dance-y, and this song is probably the most emphatic example of it. The hi-hat-dominated drum beat, and the bowing synth noises, the suggestion of “funking out” as a response to all of the homogenization of people and culture, and those dance-y guitars–it’s all more on the line of music as rebellion against control. Graffiti artist Futura 2000 drops a near-rap (!) near the end that explains both his own motivations for his art and the essential sensibility that informs the song. It’s not the idealistic (and rather naïve) understanding of music as a weapon (I’d really like to say something really weird about SDF Macross here, but that would confuse almost anyone who read it)–per se–but rather that it can act as both an  act of rebellion and as a symbol or expression of it. And, of course, it simply couldn’t be without complete without an extraordinarily funky bass run, which appears just before Futura’s verses.

“Atom Tan” lurches and leans, the guitar seeming to teeter with all its weight falling forward, before a scramble of drum roll rushes in to push it back up–only to see it falter again. An interesting vibe, to be sure, as are the double-tracked vocals of Mick’s alternated responses to Joe. Though he’s back to more cynical material, Strummer himself puts more music into his voice again, maybe egged on by Jones, or maybe just feeling it for the song–and who could blame him? The song is sheer momentum, even when it breaks for walking bass that goes up to a drop for the chorus.

Apparently it was a long take of “Sean Flynn” that inspired Bernie Rhodes to question whether their songs need all be “as long as this rāga”, the phrase that led to Joe’s re-write of Topper’s abandoned lyrics for “Rock the Casbah”. It is no surprise that this song was once played at great length by the band. Flutes, smooth saxophone and marimba (I believe; I’ve played the darn things, but I’m by no means expert at clarifying which set of percussive keys is being played) are the majority of the song’s sound. Drums  are almost all kick, bass working its way into that beat. It’s atmospheric and scattered, and quite strange indeed for the band. As I listened to it again, probably paying attention for only the first time, I was reminded of a sardonic defense of appreciation for the album, despite its “pop” and “not punk” nature–though it is these things, it’s actually a much wilder experimentation in places than Sandinista! ever was. Sounds slip in and out of the song, occasionally reflecting the weirder moments of even prog rock bands (?!), though the sounds tend to be more pop in origin (this is not the wild experimentation on sax, and in another context would be utterly schmaltzy). It’s actually enjoyable, but mostly worth hearing for the sheer sense of “Where in the world did this come from?” Of course–this, too, hints at Joe’s Mescaleros period in the 90s.

Reggae bass that unexpectedly works its way upward, unified keys and guitars playing a melody that hits the scratch-a reggae sound only briefly–“Ghetto Defendant” isn’t exclusively odd for its spoken word portion, nor even the fact that those words are spoken by none other than Allen Ginsberg. Where “Red Angel Dragnet” functioned more as backing to the spoken style of Simonon, it sounds more as if the music of “Ghetto Defendant” is arranged around Ginsberg’s recitations, or as if he spoke in keeping with it. That Joe sings between and sometimes over his lines even more emphasizes the feeling of a “sampled” recording being interwoven into a song that seems to momentarily think of itself as reggae and then immediately forget it. The rattling gallop of Central or Southern American percussion, and a harmonica enhance the sound of a song that actually has one of the most unique sounds on Combat Rock.

Occasionally found (as it is on my copy) in an edited form for legal reasons (thanks, 2000 Flushes…), “Inoculated City” resembles, in some ways, my favourite song on London Calling: “Lost in the Supermarket”. Like that track, Mick Jones takes over the lead, and the song is mostly relaxed and kind in sound, catchy and poppy, and rather friendly. The political content is more hopeful and encouraging than jaded and sneering like much of what Strummer sings.

Rounding out the album, “Death Is a Star” is more weirdness: crickets chirp and Joe begins to tell a story, speaking with the rhythm of a storyteller, before adding a tune to his voice for a moment, a waltzing rhythm joining him for those few moments, and the beautiful piano work of future Mescalero Tymon Dogg. Up-front finger-snapping and the sway of background strings keep the song both light and pretty, as the drums are kept to brushes and calm, the choruses usually Mick and Joe singing in a harmony that manages to smooth out the rough bits of Joe and the awkward, semi-nasal bits of Mick. A lovely but very odd way to end the album, and, other than a scattering of B-sides, the band itself.

Okay, okay. There was Cut the Crap in 1985. But Mick had left, and the album is generally ignored (at best) or derided, seen as a shadow of the band and nothing on its preceding work–indeed, Joe had started to doubt their ability to authentically sing about the issues he held so dear after their new-found successes.

I’m not sure what to make of Combat RockSandinista! may well have covered more genre-ground, but the variety and the space between them is more starkly contrasted on Combat Rock. In some measure, this sounds like a more mature work for the band, with a refinement of the sounds and ideas that first inspired “White Riot”, but now both more understood and more carefully delivered. I don’t think it’s going to displace…whatever my favourite Clash record is, but the more I think about it, the more I think–You know? Actually, it might.

  • Next Up: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

¹I’m going to have to call an exception for my known Sandinista! voter, as that’s John, who I mention here a lot. He has always had one of the most voraciously curious personalities I’ve known, which I oddly developed independently years later. When around him, I just picked up the results of his experimentation and exploration.

²That’s Bo Diddley for the unfamiliar: the man responsible for the “Bo Diddley Beat”, which is an extension/renaming of son clave rhythms. It’s really quite distinct, though I could not personally wow anyone with a technical description of it. It’s kind of shuffling, and emphasizes non-standard beats (ie, not 1,2,3,4 or 1&2&3&4&, etc).

³”Take the Money and Run” being the Steve Miller Band single, which I’ve been told has prevented people from completing jobs or art, due to the need to stop and clap along. I can’t blame them.

Day Thirty-Eight: The Church – Untitled #23

Unorthodox/Second Motion Records ■ LP-SMR-012

Released March 6, 2009
Recorded by Jorden Brebach, timEbandit Powles, David Trump, and David Skeet
Mixed by David Trump with timEbandit Powles(S1-1,2,3; S2-4), Jorden Brebach (S1-4; S2-1,2,3; S3-1,2,3,4), timEbandit Powles (S4), and Marty Willson-Piper (S3-3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cobalt Blue
  2. Deadman’s Hand
  3. Pangaea
  4. Anchorage
  1. Happenstance
  2. Sunken Sun
  3. LLC*
  4. Operetta
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. On Angel St
  2. Lunar
  3. Insanity*
  4. Space Saviour
  1. So Love May Find Us*
Back when I wrote about Burning Airlines’ Identikit, I decided to be a smartypants and ask J. Robbins and Peter Moffett for opinions on where to go with that entry, and got different responses from each. It did, however, help to decide which release to go with that time. When I started planning ahead for my next polls (after the onslaught around artists starting with “B”) I saw that I had the Church in the running. I actually typed up that poll (Untitled #23 vs. Starfish) and then decided that, since he had actually passed along my previous writing about the Church (now and forever the most popular post on that blog, as a result!), I would ask Steve Kilbey for input here. After doing so, I started pondering asking Marty Willson-Piper, and maybe even Peter Koppes, just to get a well-rounded set of responses, if I could, but I was surprised to get a response from Mr. Kilbey almost immediately. Without any demands, he simply told me he’d prefer I write about Untitled #23, without question (as I had asked specifically if he had a preference). When that response came in, I thought about it. I realized that, most likely, he said this because, well, if there’s a Church album people know about–it’s Starfish. It seemed, then, like it would be the right thing in all senses to follow his wishes. I took down the poll (few if any even saw it), and marked Untitled #23 for writing today.
I’ve already written about how I stumbled into the Church (the link above will take you there, if you are curious), so I’ll go ahead and leave it at the most barebones note possible. The portion of it which relates to this very entry is as follows: while I knew their biggest single, I stumbled into some of their most recent work a decade ago by chance, and this was my most expansive introduction, and informed my understanding of how the band sounds almost more emphatically than even the song that was thoroughly ingrained in my head. It was a sound appropriate for my musical tastes at the time–I was deeply into post rock, and the sounds that lay within albums like After Everything Now This were not far off from that same sensibility.
Untitled #23, as a record, is a major variation on the album as it was released on CD. The three tracks I marked with an asterisk (*) above are not present on the CD version, and were released as the B-sides on the Pangaea EP. The order is also quite significantly shifted, with former closer “Operetta” moved to the end of Side Two, and “Space Saviour” shifted forward a full seven tracks–amongst other things. This does make for a bit of a change of pace, but the tracklisting’s overall changes, compared to just dropping the extra tracks at the end, work where they lay (or lie, I’m not too sure).
Steady, clear, patient drumming begins the album in “Cobalt Blue”, a gentle electronic noise fading in, before Steve Kilbey’s voice enters, guitars¹ shortly following and chord-based, one moving higher but holding with the other. “To go and mingle in my mind”, Kilbey sings, and his voice echoes and drifts upward, pulled back down as the bass enters. Acting as counter to the guitars and giving them a brighter feel, the bass expands the range of the song itself, filling out the lower end where it had been left clear for the opening. Each time Kilbey’s voice floats off into scattering reflections, there’s a sense of a soft light spreading across the track, though after one occurrence about halfway through it takes the guitars with it, and leaves a woodwind sound that is just a bit darker, shadows falling where we just saw light. A mumble of distant voices rises up under this as a solo manifests slowly; it’s not the kind that defies the work around it, or elevates its tone or feeling to another one, it expands on the existing mood, a mix of light and softened darkness. The drums walks the track out with four easy snare hits, two pauses, and four more. Despite the snare emphasis, it’s not a march, though, it’s a normal step, one that walks us gently into “Deadman’s Hand”.
Far more uptempo, but in no way suddenly upbeat, “Deadman’s Hand” is relentlessly catchy. The riff it comes in on is distorted, but the kind that eats at the edges of the sound, rather than explicitly defining it. It’s a dark, lower-pitched kind of riff, though it doesn’t have a downward motion to it: it’s more like the kind of sound that might once have stuck the band with the label “gothic” (which has happened), but is more, perhaps, Gothic, than it is “gothic rock”–the sense of wizened or aged darkness, rather than a simple implication of deliberately depressing material. Frank Kearns adds a 12-string ring over the top of this, one that adds to this sense, despite the tendency for 12-strings to often cheer things up. When Kilbey begins singing, it’s with his normal voice, but tempered with a clever production move that changes it in spite of itself: he’s singing gently, but with the lightest “echo” that gives it an extremely ethereal quality. That “echo” is other voices here, of course, doubtless those of Marty or Peter (or both), but so subdued as to sound like shadows of Kilbey’s own. It’s a weird feeling: the drumming is uptempo, but the overall sound manages to catch itself at either end, turning it into some kind of catchy pop/rock song filtered through a drain on the most energetic elements.
The last track in its original placement, “Pangaea” begins to introduce us to the sounds that permeate the rest of the album: the first moments are a blend of mixed sounds, including touches of harp from Patti Hood and scattered notes from multiple guitars. A 12-string and bass gently bring everything together as a light cymbal wash marks the actual change. Gently strumming 12-string, thumping bassline–the song is a wash of sound, accented by backing vocals that “Oooh” gently and prettily behind Steve’s voice, which has regained its usual edge: a certain sharpness to the baritone that is incredibly distinct, that enunciates clearly, yet with a sort of catch to this that is unbelievably appropriate for their music. It all feels like a spread of sound, warm and soft, with Kilbey’s sharpened voice cutting at it, as he sings, “You’ve got your hands/’Round my throat/You’ve got your voice/In my head”, a haunting response from the others adds, “No matter what”, his threats suddenly softened by the chorus: “Pangaea…” the edge dropped and the last syllable turned to a pretty little wave. The 12-string suddenly takes over, sliding expertly through a solo that runs counter to the staid cello of Sophie Glasson.
Moved from near the end of the album, “Anchorage” is langorous compared to the preceding tracks, but the wandering, subdued keys seem to pull it upward somewhat, small points of light dotting the sliding drums, the downed guitars that blend perfectly with the keys, the lower end balanced between the mournful draw of Glasson’s cello and the almost upbeat bassline. “Just the way the dead have felt/Nothing like the way my name is spelt/But I belt it out anyway” Steve sings, the serrations emphasized, defiant, as roaring distorted electrics build the track over huge drums and splash, the wave only a small one. Scattered electronic noises are left in its wake, as the track goes on, a guitar taking off on its own to make its point, not taking it past an extended lead. The lyrics are constructed as defiant and pained, but are mostly delivered in defiance, expressing the pain with more aggression than hurt. Harmonized briefly, it’s like others carrying Steve’s defiance up when it might falter. Alongside them, a blazing guitar and then another wave, this one much larger–but it backs away, too, and this time leaves a quite chorale, the sliding tick of hi-hat emphasized drumming and a hummingbird-heart bassline. If it weren’t so eloquently sung and performed, it would be like a monologue to the absent, spoken with the openness and pride of a drunk, but the awareness, the consistency make it, instead, heartfelt admission and confession.
“Happenstance” makes for a rather curious song: at first that clean and clear biting winter wind of Kilbey’s voice and steadily strummed 12-string, tom-heavy drums and sliding bass–but then the upward curve of a higher tone turns it to something almost sunny, as Kilbey intones “Happenstance…” with just a touch of variation in each channel to give a fuller dimension to the sound. Near a whisper, Willson-Piper breathily adds a voice almost like a memory to this interruption, before that shine of lazy sun fans across it again. The trading voices of Steve and Marty, and the shining final peak of sound gives the song a feeling of relaxation almost narrated by both the present and the past.
Clanging bells and a soft buzz call “Sunken Sun” into place, though the song itself is an expansion of the sound of “Happenstance”, warm and easy resignation created with a guitar that climbs up, curious, to land on a ringing chord that is warm but expansive. As a line ends and a drum beat sounds, an operatic keyboard voice holds over empty space, ringing, echoing guitar that strikes with a sustained bass note falls across it, until it all hushes and returns to the calmness of the opening. One of the most striking solos on the album meanders in near the end of the track, never showing off at all, just growing naturally from the space it is left, often holding notes for extended periods, rather than cramming as many in as possible. It’s a beautifully organic extension of the song’s tone. The song fades off with those echoing guitar chords, clear and bright, but balanced by their companion chord into a sort of pained recollection of happy memory.
The first track to appear on the vinyl and not on the CD, “LLC” was given lyrics (and vocals) by Peter Koppes (as opposed to the usual Kilbey). A fantastic oscillating 12-string melody is the anchor of the song as a whole, and runs through all but . Much cheerier than anything previous (allegedly the cause for keeping the track off the album originally), it shifts into a predictive bridge and then a more steady chorus, before returning to that delightful 12-string run. A subtle lead holds and blends behind it, only taking real control at the very end with a rapid, twisting outro.
Originally the album’s closer, “Operetta” oddly fits in the same way as closer for Side Two and thus half the album. Strong keys and gently waving guitar eases the song into place, a seemingly endless sustain and echo on the spaced guitar chords emphasize the feeling of ends, of the music filtering out into the expanses. Overlapped, harmonized vocals and deep, low keys mark the chorus, like all preceding sounds and voices coming together by design to tie things together. This is how the song ends, too, slowly losing each layer until it is left as just a bending bass and drums, fading to nothing.
“On Angel Street” manages the neat trick of continuing without a lost beat from a track that could have ended the album. A long-held bass note accentuates a series of repeated keyboard notes and a wandering guitar. When Steve’s voice is added to this, it’s the sound of a singer alone, the keys keeping a full musicality in place, but making apparent the ambient nature of the song. The sounds are almost like blinking lights or quiet warning sirens, a backing to the voice that doesn’t imply furthered sentience or emotional presence, even as their slow shift between notes creates the emotional sense of the song. Wavering and wailing guitar leads come and enter like ghosts–beautiful but transient. That this does not end up coming off like a novelty, or an interlude, or some other kind of “fluff” is some kind of amazing.
Previously the penultimate track, “Lunar” has shifted backward only slightly (unless one counts running time). A lone woodwind starts the track as vaguely pastoral, a huge wash of ringing cymbal and the slow, resonating guitar chords setting up the slightly backed-up voice of Steve, thumping drums hinting at what is to come when a bassline filled with energy and activity absent from the other instruments comes in, churning the low end and attempting to push life into the adjacent instruments in their slowed tempos. It’s ineffective and everything falls away to a an echo-laden voice from Steve, on beat instruments, and then it seems to gain life, only to leave nothing but the woodwinds alone in its wake again.
“Insanity” is the other track that let’s Kilbey’s voice rest, as Marty Willson-Piper takes over, confident guitars stepping in ahead of the rest of the band, though when he begins singing–“It’s just insanity,” the operative word is “just”: it has a shrug to it, as if to suggest that there’s nothing to be concerned about. It works upward with each line, releasing at the end of them. It’s cheerier, even as it does not move any more rapidly. This isn’t to say it’s actually cheerful, it’s just not as…Romantic (that capital “R” is intentional). Marty’s voice goes vaguely Dylan-like, as he suggests the possibility that maybe it doesn’t make sense to ascribe the ways of the world to a divine plan, that it’s easier to see it as all random, and anything else might be, well…²
Oh, the guitar that opens “Space Saviour”; it carries just the right tone and effects, the slight watered sound and firm pull of the strings making it viscerally appealing without requiring or exhibiting the kind of feeling that a blues-inflected kind might. The steady on-beat guitar chords form a simple backing as Steve sings with the kind of voice that feels like he’s pushing it with as much power as he can–not volume, mind you, just force. The thumping four beats on drum matched with gradually opening splash are the perfect crescendo of repetition for the repeated needs of Kilbey’s words: “And I’ve gotta get up/And I’ve gotta get on/And I’ve gotta get off/And I’ve gotta get out…” When they fall away, the opening riff returns, and the drums turn to the thump and hi-hat of anticipatory restraint, as Kilbey intones calmly, gradually building back to that huge and determined parallel repetition. The song finally splinters and spreads, before leaving itself, to a watery, circling guitar that plays alone for just a moment before being left to hang.
When I noted that “Lunar” was only briefly re-arranged but with a qualifier, “So Love May Find Us” was, in essence, the entirey of that qualification. “So Love May Find Us” has a 17:48 runtime, and…I’m not sure I could, in good faith, attempt to walk anyone through it. This is not the kind of lengthy track that’s arranged around droning repetition for atmosphere, nor constant builds toward huge moments (like “Atom Heart Mother” does), nor cobbled together songs. It’s too well designed to feel like a completely improvised jam, especially with those tasty guitars in the first few minutes, shot out only every few moments, strong and clear, and hinting at a future threat. The drumming is controlled and low at the start, jazzy and interesting, burning quietly with the promise of future expanse. Eventually it begins to rumble, a solo of immense and unusual nature placing itself like a flag at the first third, marking the moment at which Glasson’s cello and Michael Bridge’s violin take precedent. For a short time, the song is more ambient than anything else, the bass drawing Steve’s voice back in with keys, before the drums finally fulfill the promise laid out earlier–not huge and aggressive, just free-wheeling and free-ranging, hi-hat traded for ride, fills and rolls eventually morphing into the standing beat. The song seems to end, hovering on ride, slowing keys, choral backing–but the bass draws it back in, the ride increasing in power, but easing off as the song shifts into a continued downtempo phrasing, ending with an excellent drum pass and a final wavering, splintering fade off.
The Church are often plagued by that comment: “Wait, the one from the 80s?” and there’s really no quality justification for it. They’ve released music with some regularity since that time, even as they’ve wobbled around the centrepoints that are Marty and Steve, Koppes taking a brief hiatus in the 90s. Their work has been generally well-regarded in all this time, even outside the fanbase. Untitled #23 was hailed as a supreme work, and justifiably so. This album is stunningly beautiful. It carries sounds you could ascribe to sources like post rock, yet when you try to pin them down, you realize it’s only a faint reminder. Neither treading their own water, nor anyone else’s, they’ve evolved steadily over the years within the very wide boundaries of their own sound. Bands with long histories often suffer obnoxious repetition of commentary–I’ve seen members of Pere Ubu incensed that their new album is not so much reviewed badly, as reviewed poorly, always referencing thirty year old albums as if that’s the only touchstone for a professional review, despite consistent releases all the way through now. They complained, too, of “Wow, they can still rock…” comments, which are similarly useless.
I suppose I could estimate how old the members of the Church were in 2009, but it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t impressive that anyone can still play at any age, nor that they can play well. It isn’t impressive that a band just isn’t releasing dreck after nearly thirty years either. What is impressive is the strength of identity in an album released almost 29 years after their first single. There’s no sense of struggling to maintain an established sound, or of flailing wildly for an entirely new one. No sense of tired, uncomfortable, should-have-retired-but-just-won’t recycling or cashing in. If a new band had released this work out of nowhere, it would be stunning. If any other long established band had released this work after a long hiatus, or even after working steadily, it would be stunning. And so this is: it’s not the sound of finally realized maturity, or of experimentation finally succeeding at re-lighting torches, it’s the sound of honed quality.
There’s no easy word for the tone that pervades this album, even with the addition of Peter and Marty’s “happier” songs (“Insanity” and “LLC”), which actually fit quite well within the whole, perhaps because of the tempering of “So Love May Find Us”. It’s the sound of the Church: not “goth”, but wise, lean, artful, and clear, with enough darkness that a casual look might relegate them (again) to goth. The album art–Marty’s photos, and the design of his significant other, Tiare Helberg and Guppy Art’s Rachel Gutek–is brilliantly perfect. It’s the kind of design and image that you can get lost in alongside the music. It’s simple and clean, all deep rust and cross-hatched off-white, but a close looks shows you thick, peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is more of the same: the way the off white left side jumps out from the dark red of the exterior, the way the thick, peeling pale red of the right moves against it–it’s nothing at all and everything at once, whatever you want, need, or feel it to be, because it doesn’t openly declare anything about the music contained. The nonchalant font, the ambiguous (or plain) title, the lack of uppercase on the exterior, it’s brilliant for preventing preconceived notions.
This isn’t an album to have a big happy dance party to, no. And, while you could take it as a possibly uneasy lullaby, it has so much energy despite the slower tempos that it remains engaging, and perhaps more engaging than much of music is. I found myself completely aware but closing my eyes throughout listening, a feeling almost like waking during a solo in “So Love May Find Us”, yet bewildered as I could recall everything I had heard up to that point in the piece, as if it has nearly hypnotized me. It’s too at ease with itself to feel overly contrived, yet too tight to feel lazy and random.
I could question the fact that this album has not made “the rounds” of the music community, but nothing is so simple as quality imbuing a work with legs. And that’s a truly unfortunate truth.
¹I am normally inclined to ascribe names to instruments, but they traded up enough on this album that I’m simply not going to bother, except where guests appear (who are specifically credit to instruments on tracks!)
²As I’m sometimes wary of misheard words, I decided to peruse lyrical transcriptions of “Insanity” and found someone who managed to completely ignore the clear moments that define these aspects: “And it’s full of holes, this Holy Bible” became “And it’s full of holes is your only rival”, and “unless it’s just a myth and” to “and let’s just admit that”. It almost looks like censoring, or willful refusal. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined things, but, no, that’s definitely what he’s singing. And, strangely–these are the only transcriptions I can find. I do sometimes wonder about people…
  • Next Up: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

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-Four: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Safe as Milk

Buddah Records ■ BDS-5001

Released September, 1967
Produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow
Engineered by Hank Cicalo and Gary Marker

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do
  2. Zig Zag Wanderer
  3. Call on Me
  4. Dropout Boogie
  5. I’m Glad
  6. Electricity
  1. Yellow Brick Road
  2. Abba Zaba
  3. Plastic Factory
  4. Where There’s Woman
  5. Grown So Ugly
  6. Autumn’s Child

On the heels of an album for which my college and high school best friend and roommate is responsible, here’s another one that fits that same bill. I’d already mentioned that John started listening to Captain Beefheart in those days, but this is actually the only chunk of it that carried over to me. While he was experimenting with Can, Beefheart, classic 60’s rock (which I grew up on and, for a little while, knew better as a result–though he eclipsed my passing, rudimentary knowledge quickly), and other more experimental music, I was delving further into extreme metal, my obsession with a Japanese band (whose albums were not released on vinyl after about 1989, and would require a complicated process to order on vinyl, nevermind their rarity even in their home country), and periodically picking up much “safer” releases in the same fashion of semi-impulsive, but educated purchases.

While Trout Mask Replica is doubtless the Captain’s most famous work, it has never sat well with me. I’m usually best with such things when I take a deep breath and throw some money at a copy and sit down with a sense of ownership, but I’ve yet to feel that compulsion regarding Trout Mask yet, so it remains dusty on the shelf of memory. Safe as Milk, however, does not suffer the “refuse to wear a headset, sing to the beat of studio leakage instead, leaving vocals out of sync” problem (?) that Trout Mask does. The Zappa connection–a guided run-down of Strictly Commercial from my father pushed me toward listening to the Mothers for the first time many years ago–did lend itself toward trying, but I don’t always have the patience or right state of mind to deal properly with the weirdest of music, believe it or not (all depends on where the line is for you, past which music gets “weird”!)

I would hear songs like “Yellow Brick Road”, “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do” from behind me in the same room on occasion, and eventually they leaked into my consciousness. “Yellow Brick Road”, in particular, I remember starting to click really well. I eventually sucked it up while living up there and picked up the album on CD, and, later, on vinyl, as it was a 180g reissue for a price that was quite reasonable indeed for the MSRP-laden pricing of teensy indie record stores “land-locked” into the mountains without competitors for sixty miles except each other.

The slide guitar that opens “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do” makes it clear immediately that the blues were the primary inspiration for the song. The gravel of Beefheart’s (aka Don Van Vliet) voice is entirely appropriate for the music, bringing the right kind of soul to fit the sliding melody’s blues. John French’s drumming is not far off from what appears on recordings of Muddy Waters and Elmore James doing variations on the song best known as Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (which the song is clearly based very directly upon), but it adds just a bit more to the rhythm than usually appeared there. There are conflicting reports as to who is responsible for that slide guitar, as Alex “St. Clair” Snouffer is credited for guitars, but Ry Cooder is known to have played on at least a few tracks, and some think this may be him as well (he is definitively credited as arranging it). It’s the kind of uptempo blues that gets toes tapping uncontrollably, though, and the musicianship is absolutely in the right place for the song. Van Vliet is the star for a reason, though, of course: his voice is not just gravely, it’s vaguely elastic, pulled upward to near cracks at moments, squashed, frog-like at others. It’s never done with the feeling that it’s to make anyone laugh, but there’s no real pretension about it either–just emotive performance.

“Zig Zag Wanderer” is more unique, the guitar no longer slide-based, and Jerry Handley’s bass playing as a near match for it. French plays the snare hits as short rolls, a neat touch that fits the groove of the song very well. When the guitars drop to let Van Vliet sing only with the rhythm section, French switches briefly to direct, single hits instead, that emphasize the space between Van Vliet’s voice and the two remaining instruments. Much like “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do”, it has the kind of gut-tugging desire for movement and rhythm built into it that is the direct inheritance taken from the blues.

Seemingly somewhat out of place, “Call on Me” is more resonant of other late ’60s rock, with a guitar that sounds vaguely Byrds-ian for much of the track, and a basic rock and roll drum beat. Beefheart’s voice is more distinct in character than a lot of vocalists aimed for in that range of rock at the time, though: the gravel and the push and pull for emotion he takes from his influences in the blues (like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker) are not what pop was aiming for at the time, either, really. The song kicks into a footstomping rhythm briefly throughout, and lets the guitar really shine, not quite soloing, just taking on a bluesy lead.

The first real hint of the possible oddities of Beefheart, “Dropout Boogie” has Van Vliet pushing his down into a strained but powerful and controlled croak. The bassline is almost overpowering, and the extreme fuzz and distortion on the guitar lets it act less as the melody the bass is empowering, and more like a light, shaky glaze on the thumping bass. It’s dirty and rough, but when a piano enters on a similarly intense but more ramshackle rhythm, it’s like the song forgot what it was for a moment, but the bass and guitar remind it. The repetitive lyrics further the idea that this is a song driven purely by rhythm. Van Vliet is credited with the bass (!) marimbas on the song, too, which take it into a sort of peculiar territory as it fades out on the same rhythm, but now underpinned with that bass marimba.

Possibly the weirdest song only because it’s the least weird, “I’m Glad” is one of only a handful of songs credited solely to Van Vliet (many are co-written with Herb Bermann, long thought a myth or joke, but who has since been discovered). The song is practically doo-wop, and calls to mind, in a way, the doo-wop experimentation of Van Vliet’s school friend Zappa, though the attitude and voice Beefheart brings is more directly soulful and pleading. The high-pitched backing vocals are the most reminiscent of the often tongue-in-cheek works Zappa did, but they’re so overshadowed by Beefheart’s excellent vocal, that they become completely reasonable in place, and even logical.

While known for telling, ahem, stories, Van Vliet alleged that the song “Electricity” was responsible for ruining a label contract for the group (it has since been stated this is not the case at all). Bermann, after he was found and interviewed for his role in this, stated that this was a standing poem for him, which Don asked him if he could put to music. The opener seems normal enough, but when the cymbal wash and the rein-pulling guitar pick repetition pulls it to a halt, Beefheart begins singing over the wandering semi-Eastern slide guitar and more cymbal washes, until a tom roll pulls in one of his most notably weird vocal choices: “Eeeeeeelectri–sity” he croaks out over this, dragging that first “E” from the start all the way to the end. As if his voice gets stuck here, he keeps singing in that low, squashed croak for a few more lines, then comes back to his normal voice. A bouncing bassline pulls in a theremin (!), the slide guitar and the most ecstatically brilliant drum feel on an album that is driven by feel. Beefheart allegedly shattered the microphone recording this track (!?), but it’s that push/pull of the slide and drum that sends this thing rocketing into the sky.

Because why not, “Yellow Brick Road” opens with a voice (that of producer Richard Perry) saying in educational-film style: “The following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level,” followed by a wavering electronic theremin-style sound warping up and down. The slide and shuffling, clickety-tap drum beat and Bermann’s weird lyrics call to mind Beefheart wandering down some kind of bizarre fantastic yellow road, describing what he’s seeing. The chorus has a thundering bassline and distant, echoing vocals from Van Vliet himself. And, damn, is this thing catchy and bouncy. It’s still not a wonder it was the first song to stick in my head.

The weirdest song (judging more externally) is definitely the one half-named for a candybar: “Abba Zaba”. A semi-tribal drumbeat is joined by very high, clear, picked guitar and then a variety of extra percussive instruments, and strange, strange lyrics from Van Vliet. The song shifts periodically into only momentary stylistic departures. It’s heavily percussive but for a sort of bridge halfway, wherein an odd instrumental break composed of bass and drum occurs. It’s still very pleasant to listen to, and not totally out of keeping with the album–if you aren’t paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not noticing how odd it is. In the context of blues and rock just slightly contorted by the interests and ideas of Beefheart, a song that is neither but built from those same interest and ideas fits quite well.

Pulling out some great harmonica work, Beefheart opens “Plastic Factory” himself, with a more slow-rolling track, croaking and cracking his way through a description of a factory and why it is not the place for him–lyrically (Bermann, again), this is very in tune with the working class subject matter in plenty of blues stuff, despite the peculiar choice of specifically burning phosphorous and the identification of a “plastic factory” as the location in question. It’s the right voice for Beefheart to accompany his harmonica with, though, of that there’s no doubt. Keep an ear out for the outro, where the the guitars build and drop waves a few times only to leave the harmonica as the last fading sound.

Somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of some of the blues-inflected, semi-experimental (and much “safer”) artists of the same time frame, “Where There’s Woman” is spacious and disjointed, conga drums and lightly echoed, intermittent drum hits are like an extended bluesy jam–somewhat reminiscent of the “Gris-gris” segments of Dr. John’s work (though his first album was not released until the next year–but I wouldn’t have guessed it was an influence anyway). When it reaches the chorus, everyone doubles in speed and energy, no longer leaving space between any parts of performance, the second chorus just building to a relative frenzy.

The guitar that opens “Grown So Ugly” is just tasty blues work (no surprise this one is most definitively credited to Ry Cooder). When Beefheart comes in singing, “I got up this morning”, you hear the instruments answer him, and think it will be some variation on the clichéd blues riff, or perhaps something like the more standard but more often real kind of instrumental answer to a line in the blues. As previously, French carries the beat further, at the end suddenly switching to drag it into a more complex musical phrase, which the guitar and bass follow him through on. Instead of letting his voice crouch low and frog-like, Beefheart floats his voice up at the cracking top of his register, for a lot of the song. In most other respects, it’s structured like many blues songs, though the ringing riffs that make up the latter half are unusual in this context.

The album closes with “Autumn’s Child”, based at open on a simple melody played on guitar and answered in bass. Suddenly backing vocals and theremin (probably) come in: “Go back ten years ago”, like a group shouting a command. The instruments punctuate it, and then go back to more spacious, wandering melodies, that lay the ground for the mid-ranged passionate, blues-hurt singing of Beefheart, themselves abruptly responded to with that (musically) shouted group phrase. A high bassline moves the song along rapidly, the guitars playing shortly, sharply and speeding up the feel even more, but slowed by Beefheart’s voice–well, likely the other way, but it feels as if he’s leading them back to this slower speed.

I felt very restricted by the limitations of my musical knowledge here, but it’s also difficult to express the feel of a well-played blues group, which is all about feel, usually. It’s best to hear it, but it’s good to understand the kind of constructions at play here, however roughly, to know that this is a sort of deviant blues-rock album, but not to lean too heavily on the deviant–likely the most emphatic assumption to make if the name Beefheart means something but not much. This is a very “normal” album, and is often at least semi-shrugged at by Beefheart fans as a result–his challenges and influences related far more to Trout Mask than Safe as Milk, but, for my money, at this point in my life, I’d rather listen to Safe as Milk, and I will most definitely and happily enjoy doing so.

  • Next Up: The Cars – Shake It Up (yes, bit of a jump)