Intermission V [End of "E" Part 1, Or: Intermission MCMXXVIII]

Ah, “E”. If it isn’t a big enough giveaway to see how uniform the image above is, it ought to be. Considering 5 of those are the same artist, 3 are another artist, 2 are one more artist…well, it’s not really a shock how little there is. How many artists do you like that start with “E”?

Now, I did almost buy the new Electric Six album on vinyl when I saw them a week ago, and that would’ve made a difference to be sure. A Dave Edmunds album wouldn’t be out of the question, either–heck, I’ve got plenty of Nick Lowe’s Edmunds-infused albums, and Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure, so it wouldn’t be too surprising, either. Edsel’s records were never released on vinyl, to be fair–though I sure as heck would not turn down their split with Jawbox. Some Brian Eno? Heck yeah. Eyedea & AbilitiesBy the Throat? Actually, may do that. I look at Bill Evans records pretty regularly, as I do at The Extra Lens (John Darnielle’s non-Mountain Goats side project). I almost picked up a copy of Explosions in the Sky‘s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever.

But, all that aside, it’s pretty well destined to be a pretty shortlisted letter all the same.
Man, to be honest, if I could get my hands on The Elephant Kashimashi’s stuff on vinyl–those first two albums, or one of those singles…but, well, those are ridiculously difficult for an American with limited funds to get a hold of. Alas!
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Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).

On Failures:

Well, I’ve successfully failed to maintain an entry a day, a week, and shortly a month, it seems. It’s not for lack of interest–it’s now for serious lack of time. I’ve usually got chunks of one filtering slowly into a draft stage, but I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment. Now, you’re most likely not reading regularly anyway–I don’t think anyone does–and indeed have no reason for this to affect your reading one way or the other, be you familiar, unfamiliar, or accidentally present. It is, however, the state of things. I intend to write as much as I am able, that simply seems to be, unfortunately, not an awful lot. That my collection’s growth outpaces my writing isn’t helping, of course. Still, Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal has been spinning off and on for a few weeks as I attempt to get that entry together.

Keep checking in, I haven’t abandoned ship!

Emperor – Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise (2001)

Candlelight Records ■ Candle064LP


 
Released October 23, 2001

Produced by Ihsahn
Mixed by Thorbjorn Akkerhaugen and The Emperors
Mastered by Tom Kvalsvoll and The Emperors


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Eruption
  2. Depraved
  3. Empty
  4. The Prophet
  1. The Tongue of Fire
  2. In the Wordless Chamber
  3. Grey
  4. He Who Sought Fire
  5. Thorns on My Grave

I’ve only touched on black metal here once before, and that was a rather curious and unique example of the genre. Diabolical Masquerade are not at the forefront of most minds when naming bands that fit the bill for the genre–more likely, you will hear Immortal, Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone–and Emperor.

I picked this album up from the sadly defunct store Musik Hut in Fayetteville, source of not only much of my metal from years past (on vinyl or otherwise) but also of my “black X” collection, and even a few other oddities indicative of how odd that store actually was. It was intended as a metal/punk/industrial store, but did carry plenty of other and “normal” stuff.

As with much of metal (other than Morbid Angel and Decapitated, and a handful of others)–such as At the Gates–even the classics (like Emperor here) were introduced to me by a single soul, to whom I tend to give credit for most of my metal awareness. He and I still talk metal now and then, of course, but also the odd other chunk of music, since neither of us is married to it in exclusivity.


When I bought this record, I don’t recall what else it was I was considering purchasing with my then-limited funds, but I recall Bob, owner of Musik Hut coming outside to inform me during deliberations that this was more likely to disappear and was, thus, the better choice at the moment. It was also a part of my occasional (weird) habit of completing my collection of an artist or band’s discography via part vinyl, part CD approach. I still have (after a few sales and purchases for expanded and fancier editions) Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, IX Equilibrium, and In the Nightside Eclipse on CD, and still don’t have any on vinyl, nor this album on CD. It does mean that, for reasons of time and convenience, this is the album I have listened to the least–there is no song I know immediately like “The Loss and Curse of Reverence”, “An Elegy of Icaros”, or “Into the Infinity of Thoughts”. It helps nothing that Emperial Live Ceremony was recorded and released before the album, so no songs got doubled exposure, either.

It’s making this a peculiar and semi-difficult review: I have never had strong feelings about the album, nor have I had the chance to develop them. Beyond that, black metal is an extraordinarily acquired taste, or so I’m told–many have commented on the breadth of my peculiar tastes, so apparently I’m not overly qualified to comment on that aspect. Indeed, I was perfectly pleased with the first black metal I remember hearing. I’ve known many metal fans, though, who do find it impenetrable. And it’s understandable, I guess, depending on where you come at it from–earlier Emperor (e.g. Wrath of the Tyrant) would give me a headache if listened to in headphones, but that was less a result of the music and more a result of its awful production. Curiously, bad production has occasionally been a deliberate choice as well as a budgetary inevitability.

Emperor’s records from In the Nightside Eclipse on to this one (their final studio album) are nothing like that. The production tends to be quite clean for the material (it’s still metal, so it is still quite heavy on distortion), which can also be attributed to the “sub-sub-subgenre” of “symphonic black metal”, which Ihsahn slowly pushed their sound toward as time went on–or rapidly, I suppose, if one listens to Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and specifically tracks like “Al Svartr (The Oath)” or “The Wanderer”.

“The Eruption” opens the album in a fashion not dissimilar to those tracks on previous albums, with howling winds, a whispering setting of the scene from Ihsahn (“…And after years in dark tunnels, he came to silence. There was nothing…”), and then a harpsichord (almost guaranteed synthetic) and synthesized violin set a kind of mixed quaint, gothic, and isolated tone before his guitars come in with Samoth’s to fill the sound out enormously on top of Trym’s drumming, their melody repeating that of the harpsichord’s. And then the sound turns to that of black metal: sheets of rapid guitar riffing and Trym’s signature fill-heavy and descending drums. The track makes immediately clear that this album is not going to be straightforward. Ihsahn’s growing fascination with clean vocals overlaid, as started on their previous album (IX Equilibrium) is now put to full effect–there are echoing choral voices (all his, of course!) that answer his “shrieked”¹ verses, and a rather melodic (and actually catchy!) chorus. The tempo and sound is fluid; little remains consistent throughout it, though it comes back to its own sounds repeatedly, shifting as if a set of constantly rising and lowering terrain that has an underlying but non-simple pattern to it.

Continuing the “spoken introductions”, “Depraved” further sets forth the “concept album” behind it all, though it makes it no more explicit. The music that follows the introduction is call-and-response shards of high-end guitar met with thundering force of drums, bass, and fuller-sounding guitars. It actually fairly well chugs for quite some time, until it locks into a melodic riff and a machine-like set of rapid drumming from Trym. A more consistent-sounding song, its only movements tend to shift the sound of that riff, or act in normal bridge fashions, linking similar passages.

The closest the album came to a single, “Empty” did have a promotional video made for it. In true Emperor fashion–hearkening back to their classic first two albums–the song simply starts. Like many of their most famous tracks, there is only an introduction of a kind–Trym does not work his way into the clattering wall of beats that the song possesses, it simply starts from the outset. Repetitions of “He is an empty shell” anchor the song next to the atonal pinched harmonic noise of its clearest lick, while short passages of keyboards give way to a more straightforward riffing movement  in a more familiar tempo–curiously, the verses, not the chorus.

“The Prophets” is another doom-y moment for the album, much like portions of “Depraved”, as it chugs forward at a steady 4/4, deep vocals mixed heavily with the guitars gutturally swarm across the track, which makes the lower-mixed-than-previous clean vocals both more apparent and more naturally blended when they answer. It’s those clean vocals that bridge the song into its halfway point, wherein the guitars are heard in isolation and suddenly speed up to a new riff, that Trym slips in under with a constant blastbeat (snare-bass-snare-bass) that is so intrinsic to much of the basic black metal sound. The thinned, high-end lead lick that is used to contrast with the rapid riffing it trades off with is also a signature sound: it is cracked and fragile, but only at a glance–it’s actually confident and empowered in a fascinating way.

In “The Tongue of Fire”, we’re again treated to the relative absence of introduction, but, as the longest track on the record, it has perhaps the most variance in sound of all, turning entirely from its heavy and charging first section to a slowed and expansive, synth-heavy middle section dominated entirely by Ihsahn’s clean voice. When he finally rises off into the distance with the phrase, “Slowly maddened/By the emptiness…” the sheets of crackling, blackened high-end guitar rain down over Trym’s tom-pounding and oddly hopeful and semi-positive synths. Guitars that reclaim the track are indicative of the melody riffed earlier, but instead cleaner and more lead-oriented, taking the instrumental portion of the song off into a complete third direction that suddenly turns into a curling, sharpened fourth portion that re-introduces the heavy sound via bass and drums, as well as Ihsahn’s voice, but declines to return to riff-styled guitars. It does also drop in that one falsetto-esque King Diamond-styled moment, which introduces yet more unique passages in the song, which declines to end cleanly, but instead to fade slowly on the imperial synths and cracked guitar leads of the central few moments.

“In the Wordless Chamber” is blastbeats and gothic synths over those speaker-filling sheets of guitar that are the absolute signature of black metal. Synthesized horns add a curious sound to the track, over Trym’s relentless beat, they almost imply a kind of charging mounted army, sending out the call to attack. For a title like “In the Wordless Chamber”, it seems odd and incorrect, but it comes to a halt and folds back on itself with a gong–the quietest moment in all the album, or at least the most serene, follows: it’s all synthetic strings and more generalized keyboard-style waves beneath that. But somewhere in them, a noticeably flat note begins to herald the return of that forward charge of horns and thundering drums.

“Grey” is a return to the distinctly complicated sounds of previous tracks that were uninterested in find a sound and sticking to it–not in the sense of the immediately previous pair, but those like “Depraved”, though it, too, has a quieter section–but one dominated by the cascades of blackened guitar, rather than the sorrowful synthetic strings that weave around behind. The nature of black metal makes it all feel like a kind of climax to the album’s concept and story, but it isn’t–if that feeling defined that moment, the entire album would be climax with only brief reprieve. It is, however, a clearly increased slope upward toward that moment.

“He Who Sought Fire” stomps heavily, but a single guitar seems to be trying to draw it back into the crashing maelstrom of more familiar black metal territory, which it is indeed successful at after mere moments; Trym is led to frantic blastbeats and then exhaustingly inescapable double-kick bass drums. Ihsahn has fully wrested the band from any grip of “standard” black metal, though, with a lead guitar that soars over the track and defies the dirtied, thinned and wall-wide sound more typical of it. Somewhat surprisingly, a bit of “wah-wah” is actually run over his guitar sound, though more for a consistent modulation of a repeated riff than anything else.

Perhaps one of the most-liked tracks on the album (at least, in my experience, which is admittedly confused), “Thorns on My Grave” is indeed a final track, but not an outro. A momentary hook is built around fingers slid rapidly up the neck of guitars, a sound that is unusual for the record and yet entirely interesting. The synths, in full “symphonic” mode, act as backing to the riffs and fill the track with drama in lead up to the pounding of the verse, which is punctuated by the repetition of that slid-finger lead. The wild spirals of high-end strings lend a chaotic, climactic note to the verses, surrounding that chorus: “For it holds every disease/Ever exposed/It holds all pain and death/It could ever unleash…” he howls wordlessly after its final repetition, and introduces the last verse, howling out the last words with unheard passion: “I am the father/I am the son/My refugee soul has escaped/This body depraved/Of final wishes I ask none/But one/Now that I am gone/Lay thorns on my grave!” and the album ends suddenly on the most emotionally extreme of notes it experiences.

Prometheus still tends to remind me of Death’s The Sound of Perseverance, in that it is a clear continuation of a band’s sound, but now almost totally divorced from its simplistic origin and wrapped in a bombastic, progressive, focused, clean, clear package. It’s not an album that you would expect, nor one that you wouldn’t. Death’s Symbolic clearly paved the way for their final album, much as there’s a clear movement toward Prometheus for Emperor, but in neither case would that final work be the expected end result–so far as I’m concerned, anyway.

Depending on your existing taste, Prometheus may actually be the first Emperor album you want to look at–if musical reaching, complexity and craft are your bread and butter, there is no better example. Those moments are spread, scattered, or at least separate on even albums like the one immediately before this. But his one is uniquely focused–Anthems has its columns that string the parts together, but Prometheus flows between its parts without need of guideposts to remind you it is a single journey.

¹This is the term I’ve always used for black metal vocals, to contrast them with the much lower-pitched sound of death metal vocals, but it’s imperfect. Ihsahn’s often sound (in later years at least–in the earlier ones, he tended to sound more like he was hissing them through a laterally pinched voice) more as though he is making sound through constant inhalation, rather than exhalation. It means they are a bit too low in pitch to fit that “shrieking” bill, but they are still much higher than death metal “growls”.

Eels – Shootenanny! (2003)

 SpinArt Records ■ spart 128


 
Released June 2, 2003

Produced by E
Reorded and Mixed by Greg Collins; A4, A6 by Ryan Boesch
Additional Engineering by Greg Burns, Alicia Guadagno
Mastered by Bernie Grundman; A6 by Dan Hersch


Side One: Side Two:
  1. All in a Day’s Work
  2. Saturday Morning
  3. Good Old Days
  4. Love of the Loveless
  5. Dirty Girl
  6. Agony
  1. Rock Hard Times
  2. Restraining Order Blues
  3. Lone Wolf
  4. Wrong About Bobby
  5. Numbered Days
  6. Fashion Award
  7. Somebody Loves You

The list of artists I’ve so far covered that I’ve listened to longer than Eels is relatively short and largely composed of the least surprising artists for me to have known for a long period of time.¹ I actually made my way into Eels fandom on the cusp of my freshman year of college, at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend, who owned Daisies of the Galaxy (in its infamously, hilariously self-censored version) and Beautiful Freak, both of which I owned before too terribly long after that, alongside their two closest temporal relatives: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2001’s Souljacker, which was still the most recent album at the time. A year later, this album was released, and you can bet, by then, I was picking it up right around the release date.

My Eels records are–somewhat shockingly–apparently the most valuable records I own. I don’t own a ton (the others are the 2×10″ Electro-Shock Blues and the last album, Wonderful, Glorious on the same format, but in a different colour, as well as End Times with its “A Line in the Dirt” 7″ companion), but people will apparently pay a lot for them. It’s less that it’s shocking for quality or popularity, and more for the fact that it has felt more like the Eels crowd is shrinking than growing, so why they would remain so expensive when the audience is (I think?) dwindling, I don’t know. Still, right now the only vinyl copy of this record listed at any sites I’d ever check to see if I want to pick up a record I can’t readily find² is at one of three sites, and they start from $125 US. Yowza! That’s almost ten times what I paid for it a decade ago!


I suppose it’s interesting I started listening to Eels in the fashion I did–for one thing, Chelsea isn’t and wasn’t A Music Person™, as she has since made a single music recommendation, and, within a year or two I knew more Eels music than she did by increasing orders of magnitude. I don’t think she’s ever caught up, but the whole not-A-Music-Person™ thing means that when we talk, it isn’t usually about music anyway. For another, Beautiful Freak is probably the most uncharacteristic of all of their albums, and Daisies is almost always talked of or thought of in the shadow of its predecessor (’98’s Electro-Shock Blues). The censored version of Daisies, alongside that, did make it possible to hear it in the art class we shared (sort of–only “It’s a Motherfucker” was censored, and incompletely, as it was all sarcastic anyway), but was, of course, not the original. I do sometimes think about finding a copy of that version, though.

But I was rather well-rounded on my Eels knowledge by the time Shootenanny! came out. I had all of their albums up to that point and tended to wear them out constantly, especially in those days where you could carry my CD collection in a box or two–and maybe even my records, for that matter (I couldn’t tell you how many it takes now, because I didn’t count all of them when I moved here 9 months ago). It became more and more interesting that I did like them, though–Chelsea’s parents did, too, and so did mine. My whole nuclear family went to see them live once, even, though I recall it being closer to the release of follow-up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

With “All in a Day’s Work”, the feel and tone of most of Shootenanny! is set into place: unsurprisingly for Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”), it’s entirely in contrast to the image set-up by an exclamation mark on a word modified from a celebratory occasion. It’s largely plodding in pace, with a grungy filter over his voice that distorts it quite deliberately. There’s a nice set of instruments behind it, and he even works in an interesting vocal “duet” with the guitars, but it remains dirge-like despite this, particularly via Butch’s clear-cut and knowingly basic drumming. It’s always been a favourite track of mine anyway, though–the way the chorus cuts through that shuffling slump without actually lifting the tone (just the energy!) is pretty magnificent. That the whole thing is lyrically self-deprecating (ie, “everything is screwed up, which is all just a day’s work for me…”), but with the same shrugging disinterest and twist of wry awareness that permeate’s E’s songwriting, whether it’s truly poignant pains of the well-known variety (his family history is a gigantic pile of sadness and loss) or just this kind of self-ribbing.

An actual relatively famous single as Eels tracks go, “Saturday Morning” is a lot shinier and more upbeat than its predecessor. It’s oddly cleaner, even as the guitar lead is squawky like E likes it³. The vocals do go right into falsetto, which is not a new thing for Eels, but may make the most sense it ever has when it’s placed in a song sung from the point of view of a wired kid who has woken up alone and wants some company for the best day of the week a kid has.

Though I’m often left thinking of the Weird Al original song of the same title, “The Good Old Days” is one of E’s better shruggingly pessimistic ballads. It’s a world that’s not all that great, really, and neither is he, for the woman to whom he sings. But, who knows? Maybe this is as good as it gets–maybe the kids out there enjoying it like any other day, maybe the contrast with a bad dream–maybe the two of them just need to make these the good old days. It’s a quietly pretty song, with E’s voice at its surface-morose best, and a very fragile acoustic guitar track backed by a sad, sweet sliding one. It’s engaging in its simplicity–or maybe because of it, or maybe some combination of the two.

Building on a set of very “lo-fi” simple tracks, including a 1-2, 1-2 drum machine, E sings right up at the microphone, an approach he seems to use to imply a kind of immediacy, intimacy, and frankness. Warm keys and incredibly spare guitar join him for the chorus and bring a brightened edge to the song at an entirely appropriate moment, as he sings: “If there’s a God up there, something above/God shine your light down here/Shine on the love/Love of the loveless”, though it drops away again for the next verse. It rejoins moments earlier when the chorus returns this time, though. And this time he repeats the title a few more times, one of them emphatic and passionate. The bridge appears and has a moment of anticipatory tension, growing and growing and–dropped on its face, not violently, just with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, which is an E trademark at this point. But then the song holds its warm edge, and E starts to latch onto that passion he flashed earlier, the song managing a kind of strength that is not belied at all by a still slow pace and instrumentation that, while brightened, is still spare and overall light. It’s a clever and interesting trick, actually, and one of the other songs I’ve always liked on the record.

While I’ve always felt Beautiful Freak was an aberration in E’s discography, the phrase itself manages to encapsulate the overall sense of E’s approach to songwriting: pretty, but unusual, and juxtaposed oddly. “Dirty Girl” reminds me of this because it starts with a nice guitar line in isolation, but takes a sharp turn when Butch drops in for E’s first verse, which begins: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth…” The chorus is wonderful over its broken, half-dissonant but actually quite pretty chords. That same style is used for a solo section, and the style lets it really fill the track out, as if the chord is splintering so that it can fill any remaining cracks around it. It’s like the solo moment allows this trick to reveal itself, where it comes off as a clean, flat surface behind E’s voice in the chorus. It should be no shock at this point that, though Butch’s beat is very uptempo and cheery, the song itself is anything but–yet continues to avoid mopeyness.

The tiniest of intros precedes “Agony”–a call for a new take, and then a quick run up and down some keys cheerfully. It makes a funny kind of sense, as the song that follows is one of the most purely miserable songs E has done–it’s self-aware enough to avoid the sense of pure self-pity, but it has no real wry edge. It’s all keys and drum machine-style beat to start–and the keys have a reverb and electronic tone that lets their chords curl off like the unsettled floor of a body of water when something hits it–slow motion waves that are but the side effect of the real force at play. Strangled and heavily muted 4th beat guitar chords give way to heavily phased and distorted keys that seem to swallow the rest of the track, the low end swelling beneath them and creating a somewhat disorienting sense to the song.

“Rock Hard Times” has the kind of intro that says, “Hey, this is about to be a really catchy song, so we need to kind of prepare you for it”–at least, in the alt-rock kind of vernacular, it does, I think. A solid four-on-the-floor beat and a nicely back-and-forth bounce to the tune make it a catchy tune indeed, with a wonderful chorus–more misery, but with a kind of determined hope behind them. And after a nice, restrained solo section, the keys take over for an organ-style solo of their own. E’s voice and the very pointed notes of the actually near-monotonic guitar backing are the real stars, though, the former riding across the bed-of-nails of the latter like a steadily bumpy ride continuing readily forward.

Heavy on slide, the kind that makes people say a song is “country-tinged”, “Restraining Order Blues” is a song I might place in that pantheon of “stalker songs”, but most of those tend to be ones that don’t explicitly state it in both the title and lyrics that reference the judge who approved the order. It’s just another off-kilter source for E to write a knowingly melodramatic paean to an unattainable and unrequited love. One gets the impression that it does bear some more resemblance to a stalker song I’ve already covered, in that that song’s author described it more as infatuation or attraction that has been taken entirely too far–rather than the explicit (or even implied) threat of some of the others out there. Which is apparently enough in some cases to confuse people as to how acceptable it is, or whether, in this context, a restraining order would be overreaction (answer: most likely, it wouldn’t).

Probably my favourite song when the record came out, “Lone Wolf” has a chugging, punctuated forward momentum. It is interestingly a sort of distant, fuzzy analogue to future track “Hombre Lobo” (title track of the album that came out six years after this one). It’s a defiant and proud track, though not one swollen with hubris, really. It’s not that E is describing himself as amazingly independent–just a definitive introverted sort of person. Even in its slightly re-arranged version on Sixteen Tons (Ten Songs), composed of re-workings of Eels songs for Morning Becomes Eclectic, there’s a power to the song that the original version is concretely built from, even at its starting point of drum machine and heavily strummed acoustic.

The bass on “Wrong About Bobby” starts the song off on its own, and tells us we’re in for something more akin to the earlier chunk of Eels history. Unsurprisingly, then, “Wrong About Bobby” is the closest relative to “Saturday Morning” on the album, with the strongest solo, an upbeat tempo and more cheerful guitars than in most of the other tracks. Butch does his signature Eels beat, and E does his story-teller voice, the one that doesn’t tie the lyrics as directly to himself. It ends with a strangely produced, half-reversed outro that bridges it nicely into the next track.

“Numbered Days” is perhaps the saddest and prettiest track on the record–it’s not actually all that openly miserable in tone, but there’s this underlying feel to the chords, like they’re bright-faced and hopeful, but you can just see their approaching emotional doom the entire time. Maybe it’s the fact that it avoids snares and cymbals so completely for half the track–even the bass drum just following the bass guitar. When the snare and cymbal are finally allowed to enter, they bring with them the carefully meted out, extremely forceful single piano notes that don’t sour the sound, really, they just sort of take it back down to earth. The power in them is a kind of finality, a kind of, “No, things aren’t going to turn out quite so well as you might think.”

Always a confusing track to see the title of, “Fashion Awards” harkens back to the simple, child-like sounds of tracks like “Jeannie’s Diary” and “Daisies of the Galaxy” from three years prior. E’s voice is all falsetto, and the guitar he plays is delicate and fragile. Even though Koool G. Murder’s (really) bass is firm, the delicacy of the song overall is not lost. When keys begin to act as backing chorus to the guitar, when Butch’s drums enter–it still doesn’t change. The fragility is largely retained in the falsetto vocals, as well as the intense, fatalistic (and disturbingly uncaring) refrain of “…Nobody said that the world was fair/And if they did say so, well then…/…We’ll blow off our heads in despair.” It’s so absurd a reaction, so over-the-top, that it swings all the way out past seeming self-pitying or attention-seeking (or, thankfully, serious) without actually losing the feeling that leads toward that statement anyway.

Perhaps in keeping with everyone calling Electro-Shock Blues depressing and Daisies of the Galaxy cheerful despite E’s insistence that each is the opposite, I think “Somebody Loves You” marks the definitive moment in the record, and thus readily counters the insistence that it’s nothing but an exercise in misery, and, for some, a crossing of the line he so readily balanced before. The swing of the opening chords points toward rays of light in the distance, but strong ones. The chorus they are pointing to comes sooner than expected, though there’s a swing down to really kick it into the stratosphere right before it hits. And when it hits…boy, what a song to inspire in moments that one might feel the rest of the album fits for. It acknowledges current sadness, but gives inspiration for progressing past it: “Somebody loves you/And you’re gonna make it through…” I think for E–based, at least, on his comments on Daisies–knowingly and deliberately chose this as a final track, and as a moment that, then, defines the totality of the record, even in its contrast. There is passion, sincerity, earnestness, and even some kind of truth in the way he sings that chorus: it’s easy to believe it, even if you may think otherwise–at the least, that he sincerely means that it simply has to be true.

I’ve spent much of my time since 2003 considering Shootenanny! the “plain Jane” of the Eels oeuvre. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s after the shifting styles of Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy managed to finally explode into the strong but wildly erratic Souljacker two years before and so little could seem anything but musically banal in comparison. Maybe it is the most “plain” of their records. I’m not sure–it was Butch’s last full contribution, and it was the first album I heard new from the Eels, and a band I fall in love with then hear new material from is often in for a rocky moment or three. As I’ve listened to this record again, particularly having to pay attention (else this would be an exercise in linguistic masturbation at best: I’m writing for the music, not for the writing, and would not want it otherwise) I feel either time has been kind, or I was too harsh. It’s still hard to look at that plain cover and get an evocation of the feelings it instills, but maybe that was the point–even the interior is a scattered set of studio photographs, nothing really indicating anything about the songs.

I’m not sure at all, what it is, or was, though I think I was not alone in initial disappointment–but I rescind that pretty emphatically now. This is an extremely good record, which I’ve unfortunately missed for much of the last ten years. Shame on me, I guess!

¹AC/DC, Alice in ChainsAphex Twin, At the Drive-In, The Band, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Cars, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Deftones, Dire Straits, and a few I did, of course know of, but didn’t go out of my way to listen to, like the Beach Boys, who I followed John into in college. And, yes: the one who reviewed Album – Generic Flipper and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That will either make no sense to you or complete sense, I think.

²Not an extensive list. Just Amazon, eBay, and Discogs.

³I’ll never forget the interview I read over ten years ago, where he said that he liked noises that made people check their stereos because they were afraid they might be broken.

Echo and the Bunnymen – Crocodiles [US Release] (1980)

Sire/Korova Records ■ SRK 6096

Released July 18, 1980

Produced by The Chameleons (Bill Drummond, David Balfie) and Ian Broudie (Tracks A4, B1)
Engineered by Hugh Jones and Rod Houison (Tracks A4, B1)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Going Up
  2. Do It Clean¹
  3. Stars Are Stars
  4. Pride
  5. Monkeys
  6. Crocodiles
  1. Rescue
  2. Villiers Terrace
  3. Read It in Books¹
  4. Pictures on My Wall
  5. All That Jazz
  6. Happy Death Men
¹Not present on original UK release, but included on a bonus 7″ with early pressings
While Paul Westerberg’s strange “side solo act thing” Grandpaboy is still echoing through my head at the moment, a mild spur toward writing here has convinced me to take up the reins and launch in again, after a good many weeks of just not feeling it and not wanting to half-ass it instead. Of course, that kind of approach can occasionally work, but this is intended to be a joyful thing, not a chore, and everyone I know wasn’t even keeping up after I started slipping more toward weekly entries, so it isn’t as if I’ve left a relative gap for anyone paying attention (PS: if I have, you should probably tell me. If someone else is interested, there’s far more reason to stick to doing this more regularly!)

When I think of post-punk, my first thought is still pretty consistently of Gang of Four. It’s not fair, of course: one of the things I even like most myself is the insane variance of styles and approaches bands that appeals to me most about the genre (and its sometime-close relative, post-hardcore). Echo & the Bunnymen kind of exemplify one of the far bounds of what I think of–mostly because they aren’t a sound I think of at all. Much like The Boomtown Rats or the Talking Heads and punk,¹ I’m aware of the classification and even the justifications, but I think of them more as popular, familiar, readily grasp-able bands. Mainstream or pop, even–not in that bizarre, disparaging sense most use those terms in now, just in the sense of more familiar instrumentation and song-writing, even if with a clear identity. I can’t pin down what it is that makes my brain draw the lines where it does, except perhaps to say that here I think it’s the dominance of Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s voice, particularly over Will Sergeant’s guitar, but that’s just a guess, as it’s an instinctive thing.


As I think is probably increasingly common, my first (knowing) exposure to Echo and the Bunnymen was in 2002 (I suppose that won’t be increasingly common, for obvious temporal reasons) when I watched Donnie Darko, which quickly became my (still uncontested, for reasons that don’t belong here, as we’re talking about music, not movies) favourite movie. The theatrical cut² of the film opens with Echo’s “The Killing Moon”, which appeared on the later album Ocean Rain (the other I have on vinyl by true coincidence–I don’t see Porcupine or Heaven Up Here often, and the self-titled album is distinctly disparaged, so it was simply the other I ran into, not one pursued).

I’d actually already heard Echo in a similar but relatively peculiar context: released as a soundtrack the same month as their then final (if you will) album, the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lost Boys contained their cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”. I first saw the film with young eyes and didn’t quite catch on to the variance in sound it had from the original track, which I also heard plenty of at a young age. Maybe it was the appropriate placement of a non-goth but goth-esque³ band with a movie reveling in both goofy camp and darker violent moments, rendering it too appropriate to stand out from its predecessor.

I began slowly collecting Echo albums two years ago, beginning with the 2003 expanded CD of this very album, and culminating with the comparable releases of Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. I was in the throes of my fascination with post-punk and earlier post-hardcore, so it only made sense. It did mean that an absolute torrential influx of music into my library prevented a lot of it from fully penetrating, but I got a feel for the sound of Echo, nebulous though it was.

“Going Up” is appropriate as an opener for the way it slowly winds its way into play, Pete De Freitas pushing it forward until Sergeant jams down a chiming set of chords that drop the band right in your lap. Les Pattinson’s bass is the one element that keeps itself even throughout both the opening rise and the splashing constancy of the song as it follows. One of my favourite moments on the entire album comes just after the midpoint of the song, Pattinson continuing on as Mac’s voice fades, Pete holding a steady beat, and Sergeant layering a coiled non-solo lead over an occasional spark of clean, clear individual strings. Mac’s voice occasionally wobbles back in and out almost unintelligibly until the song fades on this curious and unexpected twist of sound.

The next track on my copy was not on the original UK release (surprise, surprise…) and was most uniformly (non-limited-type) released as a b-side to the non-album single “The Puppet”, and I continue to be baffled at it not having been released as an independent single. “Do It Clean” is a charging song, Pete riding a hiss of cymbal over Pattinson’s climbing bass until producer Balfie drops an almost Steve Nieve-y key riff in to smash the song in. As he fades, Mac takes the song over, throwing in what is, no doubt, the catchiest chorus on the record (even if it wasn’t on the original record!). It’s a rush with a throbbing bass and a nice, fast drumbeat. I guess, though, the band eventually agreed–apparently the song is wildly popular now, and was even (in live form) b-side to “The Killing Moon”, which I’ve always understood was a rather successful single, independent of its usage in (a few, actually) movies.

“Stars Are Stars” drops the pace and tone down a fair bit–for all that there’s a downward curl (mixed with a sort of sneer) to Mac’s voice even in the uptempo “Do It Clean”, this is even more miserable, in its way. It’s something like an amped up version of the most morose moments from Robert Smith, slower for Echo, but still fast for its mood. Sergeant inserts a solo that’s simultaneously knowingly simplistic and acutely unnerving at each note, repeated a second time and seeming to instrumentally echo (ahem) the words and sounds of Mac that precede and surround it. Pete’s enthusiastic drumming, particular, a periodic, bass-heavy fill are what keeps the song moving.

There are hints of that Andy Gill-style jerky, angular, strike of guitar in Will’s opening moments of “Pride”, but they are smoothed and curved back in filter by the time of the verse. Momentary interruptions of a xylophonic instrument and the crash of that sharpened intro as chorus fill out the song’s sound and identity, one that’s primarily defined by those rounded edges on the guitar, murky like the water of a lake, but still clear enough to keep on.

There’s something of the early U2 sound (slightly pre-dating, but largely contemporaneous) in “Monkeys”, a moody, contemplative rumble with flights of wiggly, springy guitar. Les’s bass is the controlling force, though, except at the chorus, where Sergeant’s reverberating squiggles become clean, sharp, and straightened points of melodic focus. It’s perhaps the most recognizably “post-punk” of tracks on the album, and that’s a very good thing.

The title track is probably the closest match the original running order had to the energy of later insertion “Do It Clean”: Pete’s drumming and Les’s bass are both at their most frenetic, even when Mac’s voice drops along with the song, for a booming moment of low-end groove–which fascinatingly ends on a sudden chime at a bright and high pitch. But Les and De Freitas won’t let the song relax long, and shove it back into overdrive, letting Will’s lead moment turn to a rapid struggle of furious riffing on adjacent chords, turning to a broken record of jagged peaks of muted chords.

While extra songs were inserted, the running order is actually mostly intact–much like the original, the US Crocodiles opens the second side with the single “Rescue”, which was released before the album initially. Not riding the intense energy of a “Do It Clean” or a “Crocodiles”, it’s still a noticeably pop-inflected song, and an unsurprising choice for single. The high-point-low-point alternation of Will’s guitar is emblematic of much of the post-punk-y hits of the 1980s, nudging even at the edges of its cousin indie-rock and the more moody work of the Smiths when at its chorus, though De Freitas acts far more as a rock drummer in his force than Mike Joyce would–a natural difference in musical styles, but a noticeable one.

“Villiers Terrace” is unquestionably my favourite Echo track, bar none. I may not be alone in this, as the most extensive fan site out there shares the name. “I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/To see what’s happenin'”, goes the chorus, and it’s catchy as all hell, yet distinctly ominous and shaky–Mac’s description encourages that feeling, though, as he continues: “There’s people rolling round on the carpet/Mixing up the medicine/[…]/Biting wool and pulling string…” David Balfie’s quiet return on piano perfectly enhances the weird, discomforting and hallucinatory, semi-horrifying observational feeling of the song, with a prettily rising but somewhat off riff. The song pulses and grooves, but is spiked with those incredulous descriptions.

Sonically, “Pictures on My Wall” is a very appropriate follow-up to “Villiers Terrace”. The intro is the still-hot but low-burning embers of that fire, bellowed up to steady, even flames by the verse, crashed into a thunderous bolt at the end of the chorus, droning keys stretching out behind it. Pete peddles mightily behind it, pounding up the snare to an all-ride hiss that breaks with a round-trip fill. It would be a somewhat spooky trip through a decaying, darkened hallway (lined, of course, with old pictures) if not for Pete and Les, who give it too much motion to be completely mired in spookiness, without completely interrupting that moody darkness.

Somewhat appropriately, the wide-release of “Read It in Books” was as the b-side to “Pictures on My Wall”, which means its placement here is perfectly logical. It’s a continuation of the subdued tempos and tones (but not moods) the previous tracks have started to establish, too. While there’s power and force in the song from the rhythm section, it never really gives the track the kind of oomph that would render it something beyond moody and darkened. Mac’s voice seems to be at its most unrestrained, even when it is low, quiet and breathy.

Stompingly rhythmic, “All That Jazz” is another nudge toward that Gang of Four-type aural aesthetic, the rhythm section carrying much of the song’s groove while Sergeant’s guitars strike across the top of it. It isn’t, of course, some kind of rip on the (semi?)famous Leeds band: a late break in the song for a melodic low end ripple over a pounding patter of percussion is unusual and unique in sound, especially as the rest of the song crashes back in on top of it, shoving the entire track and the album back to a kind of energetic peak that stops suddenly when the track ends, bringing us to the final track and a more wandering, experimental feel.

“Happy Death Men” is oddly appropriate for its odd title. It seems to wander in in a daze, sprinkling random key sounds across its length. Mac’s emphatically punctuated repetition of the title in the chorus is oddly endearing and also just odd, considering the words. At something like the first third’s end, his voice leaves the instruments behind, as they seem to jam or otherwise experiment, until a horn section (!) suddenly appears, repeating the slight melody and particularly rhythm of Mac’s vocal chorus. When his own voice returns, the song takes yet another turn toward the meanderings it saw just moments before, once again punctuated by those horns, but now joined by Mac’s voice. Pete gallops off toward the end of the song aggressively, wildly–Will lets loose a furious wail of sharpened, passionate soloing, the horns find tentative footing, and everything crashes and wanders off into a slow fade.

I feel as though I wandered into an awful lot of comparison here, but it is for me (as with most people) one of the easiest methods of describing musical sounds–language alone can only get one so far before the limitations of subjective description begin to interfere and cause a kind of divergence in perception. Still, it implies a kind of “secondary” status for the band, which is undeserved–comparisons should largely not be treated in that way anyway, but instead for the reason I at least intended above: familiarity via parallel.

The cover of Crocodiles is actually quite interesting, and I cannot leave without commenting to that effect: the boys are standing, leaning, and sitting in various less-than-happy ways (and, in Mac’s case, rather bewildered or shocked) in a forest in Hertfordshire, but one that is rendered bizarre, artificial-looking and even vaguely psychedelic in its forced, colourful lighting⁴. It’s a pretty striking image–I don’t know if I could call it evocative with regard to the music, but it is at least peculiar and darkened enough to suggest the unusual tones and bleak tones of the album. Credit goes to one Brian Griffin, who certainly deserves just that.

¹I’m of the mind that both left the genre pretty rapidly and wandered into entirely different territory, but the first album from each feels pretty firmly punk-y.

²The director’s cut version restores INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to this place, which has a uniquely appropriate lyrical moment as it’s edited. I think it angers some people because of INXS’s obviously more popular (and more “pop”, often in that aforementioned disparaging sense) nature, and thus severely deprecated “cred”. Whatever. But then, I own an awful lot of INXS records.

³Mac’s lyrics and his vocals would not be too out of place in those circles, at the very least, and the dripping, downward crawl of that song (and the especially warbly sound of Will’s guitar, too) only enhanced this.

⁴Reminiscent, I feel, of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories

Intermission IV [End of "D" Part 1, Or: Intermission MCMXXVII]

It has been much slower than before–my last intermission (not counting John’s little deviant one) was four months ago. It’s been a busy year suddenly–two new jobs, and more hours at one of them than I had at the one I started with when this blog started six months ago, a trip out of town, a new turntable, and a variety of odd occurrences in their own little ways have had their effects on my ability to keep this thing up-to-date. Of course, the addition of many records to my collection as I find new stores, make trips, and feel a collector’s passion ignited isn’t helping either. You may even notice I have seven artists uncovered in that collage above, and only two of them are singles. Some (Dead Kennedys) I’ve been looking for, some I’ve known for a while, and some I’ve been meaning to look further into than I have–and one was part of my large purchase of records from the Arctic Rodeo label in Germany.

It’s a bit of a weird letter, D. It does tend to include an awful lot of metal–dark and death alone start with “D” so it does kind of fall to reason, even if only one of those bears out in my own collection of records. I wouldn’t be averse to a copy of Death‘s Symbolic or Dark Tranquility‘s The Gallery, but the former has only received narrow European pressings, and the latter is not unreasonable for the various 2xLP etched incarnations, but is a lesser desire. A little more Dead Kennedys would not go amiss (Plastic Surgery Disasters, perhaps–skipping the copy of Frankenchrist I once saw was silly of me), and I occasionally ponder copies of Depeche Mode‘s Black Celebration and Deep Purple‘s Fireball when I see them. I could easily rock some Dinosaur Jr. or happily a copy of The Dismemberment Plan‘s Emergency & I ($75 and up! Somewhat lower and I might be watching it…). I’ve had an eye on Doomtree‘s self-titled release for a while, after stupidly passing up on it when it was released. Finding either Drive Like Jehu album would be cool, too–especially snagging a copy of Yank Crime that includes the 7″ it originally did!

E’s a short letter, unsurprisingly, with a whopping four artists hiding in it, only one of which might be surprising to people who know me–or, at least, unfamiliar. It does happen to contain my most valuable record of all, though–at least, based on what people will apparently pay for a copy!

If you feel like it, take a vote on the first artist to appear under that letter’s umbrella: Echo and the Bunnymen, who may, at this point, be most famous for “The Killing Moon”, which was already a single, but was also featured in the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko.