30 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #30

Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything? (Bearsville, 1972)

Something/Anything? isn't really concerned with deep meaning. And, oddly enough, that's just fine. This double album is all about classic pop craftsmanship as an art form, an end to itself: there isn't much heart and soul here, but soul-rending self-expression patently isn't the point. The point is how good Todd Rundgren is at pretty much any style of song he chooses to try his hand at recording, and he succeeds so easily so many times on this album that it probably had more than a few pop stars who heard it shaking in their boots for a few months. It's been referred to before as an "encyclopedia" of different styles and different kinds of pop songs, and that's accurate. It is mind-boggling to think that, at 23, Rundgren walked into a L.A. recording studio with literally no one else but an engineer and a daily dosage of Ritalin, sat down at a drum set which he'd never played on record before, and ended up bashing out three full sides of immaculately written, astoundingly well-arranged and performed, and extremely catchy pop. He would have recorded more by himself, but after an earthquake, he relocated to New York and recorded the fourth side in live takes with a pickup band consisting of session musicians that were hanging out at the studio. The fourth side is my least favorite side on here, but it certainly has character and is as well-performed as anything else here.

Songs here range from pure '70's AM pop ("I Saw The Light," one of Rundgren's most famous and well-loved singles; the remake of his old song "Hello It's Me," which was his most successful single; "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," "It Takes Two To Tango") to keyboard-led psychedelic indulgences ("Breathless," which is a technologically oriented synth wankfest that succeeds anyway, probably because it has a melody; the incredible Beach-Boys-meets-"Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" ballad "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down") to weirdly catchy novelty numbers (the Gilbert and Sullivan tribute "Song of the Viking," the drunkenly slurred, bluesy "I Went To The Mirror") to pseudo-hard rock songs (the slow guitar solo vehicle "Black Maria" and the ridiculous slide guitar infested "Little Red Lights"), and even to other styles I can't discuss because this sentence is running on long enough as it is. The hardest-rocking songs on here are a power pop masterpiece called "Couldn't I Just Tell You," which is good enough to rival pretty much anything Big Star did, and a drunken, obnoxiously misogynistic but deeply catchy singalong number tastefully entitled "Slut" that Big Star ended up covering live in the '70's. There are so many good and astonishingly well recorded and performed songs here that I really can't imagine not getting it if you're at all a fan of '70's pop music. It may seem overlong and maybe mediocre at first due to sheer length - the whole thing is 88 minutes, and it can be very hard to sit through all in one go - but keep listening and it'll eventually make sense. Something/Anything? is a pop masterpiece that succeeds because of extraordinarily well-observed Beatlesque pop craftsmanship, technological mastery, sheer musical ability and performance. This album is a master-class in those fields.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #29

Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear (Tamla/Motown, 1978)

Here, My Dear is a confusing, self-indulgent, bitter, conflicted, deluded, and above all honest masterpiece with almost no immediately catchy melodies on it. Using "honest" to describe this album might seem incongruous at first: at a deep level, this album's relationship with reality is somewhat tenuous. Marvin Gaye made this album in one of the strangest divorce deals in history. Money from two albums was the only way Gaye could fund his divorce from Anna Gordy, who was the sister of Berry Gordy - the head of Marvin's record label - and a woman he'd cheated on for years. (Gaye's spending habits made MC Hammer look parsimonious, and he was desperately short on cash.) Gaye's relationship with his wife was very weird - they apparently remained close after the divorce, which had been extremely acrimonious - and the divorce proceedings, on the days when he bothered to show up, generally left him so mad that he had to go to the studio and start recording. Gaye seemed to have been completely shocked when Anna Gordy served him with divorce papers, even though he'd already moved in with an 18-year-old. He'd originally decided to meet his obligations with two albums filled with utter crap, but he soon became obsessed with the project and labored over it for months and months, and then put out this crazed double album (two albums, natch) after Berry Gordy threatened to kick him off of Motown and destroy his career for good and for all if he didn't release it quickly. Unsurprisingly, it promptly stiffed. The album is a very skewed - but totally honest - account of a failed marriage. It is also the ultimate male self-pity album. It is also as close to a confessional singer-songwriter album as any soul singer ever put out. (This might be Marvin Gaye's version of Blue.) It was clearly conceived as a complete album, yet there are parts where you could definitely accuse Gaye of padding and filler ("Everybody Needs Love" has the same melody as the title track; "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" pops up as an "instrumental" version, which basically consists of Gaye singing to himself over the song's backing track, and as a reprise, in addition to the regular version). And it's riveting, often furious - yet it's completely laid-back and sounds completely stoned half the time. Here, My Dear is an almost insoluble problem of an album.

This is an album that is deeply successful on its own terms, which not many people seem to be willing to understand. It's not really about the songs, per se, although there are more than a few songs that clearly meant a lot to him and that he clearly spent some time working on. It's about the sound of the album as a whole - the grooves, the lyrics and the singing. The sound of this album is definitely not quite soul, definitely not disco, and definitely not funk in the way that Sly/Clinton/Brother James defined it - though a majority of the songs are carried by extraordinarily funky polyrhythms. (There we go with that whole paradox thing again. It's just going to continue throughout this review, so get used to it.) It's extremely subtle. It lulls you into hearing all the details of the sound. Musically, it's kind of like a really depressed '70's Stevie Wonder album without any trace of pop songwriting on it, come to think of it. It's suffused throughout with Gaye's soft, caressing, seductive synthesizer work - there are electronic keyboards all over this album. Guitars are consistently kept in the background and used as either wah'ed or chicken-scratched rhythm instruments. Bass provides syncopated and continually unexpected melodic glue/backbone to the songs, and I shudder to think how sketchy this whole album would have been if Bugsy Wilcox's drumming hadn't been so tightly complex, funky and consistently wonderful, although word is that Gaye himself did some drumming on the album as well. (Marvin was an accomplished drummer.) The mood is downbeat and angry, but it's never rousing. The point is to sort of luxuriate in the sound as Marvin sings to you in your ear about what's going on with his life and his relationship.

The lyrics don't present a consistent picture at all. Some songs were clearly meant to hurt Anna and smear their relationship. "Here, My Dear" features the famous lyric "You don't have the right to use a son of mine/To keep me in line." "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" is six full minutes of relationship bile from hell, and "You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You" seems determined to make these two people despise each other for the rest of their lives. But a few other songs seem just as determined to preserve good memories of their relationship. Most of "I Met a Little Girl" chronicles his relationship with Anna Gordy in the most idyllic of terms. It ends with Marvin singing "Hallelujah... Alleluia, I'm free." Oops. "Anna's Song" talks about the beauty of their relationship in very positive terms and hooks it to the lines "This is Anna's song... I'm making love all night long." Gaye sings "I'll always remember you and all the fun we had" on the "instrumental" version of "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You." Some songs concern Gaye's tormented need to feel loved: there is no moment on the album that sounds more genuinely agonized than when Gaye sings "Doesn't matter, what you are, a thief, or a beggar, or a superstar." Still others have him turning the pen on himself: "Time To Get It Together" ends in a subtle but extremely funky coda with Marvin's lead vocals singing, "I've been racing against time, trying my best to find my way, change my world in just one day. Blowin' coke all up my nose, gettin' in and out my clothes, foolin' 'round with midnight ho's, but that chapter of life's closed." Sounds optimistic, right? Wrong. The backing vocals are singing at the same time: "Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock - my life's a clock and it's winding down. From the day you're born till the day you're in the ground." He's acknowledging his own, prodigiously self-destructive tendencies. (In case you hadn't noticed, we'll just say Marvin Gaye was a very, very, very damaged, traumatized individual.) And one song has seemingly almost nothing to do with the concept: "Sparrow," which is six minutes of Gaye talking to a bird and pleading for it to sing. Maybe he's grasping at any source of beauty in his life. Or maybe... he's just talking to a bird. Where does all of this lead? "Falling In Love Again" is an open commitment to Gaye's lover, Janis Hunter - but their relationship and later marriage had begun failing during the making of Here, My Dear, and they would soon get another acrimonious divorce. Paradox upon paradox.

The singing is the most intricate and possibly the best it would ever be on a Marvin Gaye record. But Gaye never sings with the power that characterized his early '70's material, much less the '60's material. The singing here is less about sheer power than about melody, timing, subtlety, and pure beauty. Marvin's singing is nothing less than gorgeous throughout, and he overdubs several tracks of his own voice on many of the songs. So many songs here have Marvin's lead vocal playing off the sound of his own massed backing vocals - and each backing vocal interacts with the music in a completely different, individual way. In its' way, this album is almost a masterclass in singing: how many albums have you heard where the singer records something like seven vocal tracks on a song, interacts with the music differently with every tracked vocal, and have it come out not just coherent, but like it was meant to be that way? Let me know of any others that are out there, because I can't think of any.

Maybe the way to best explain this album is with a line from "Is That Enough," my favorite song on the album; at one point during the seven-minute song, which slowly builds into one motherfucker of a groove, Gaye actually sings the line: "Somebody tell me please, tell me please: Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" This line is brilliant - it sums up everything the album is about in one neat contradiction - but it could fall totally flat in the wrong hands. Gaye makes it confused, clever, enraged and resigned all at once. Here, My Dear is a brilliant, confounding puzzle.

29 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #28

Shit and Shine, Ladybird (Latitudes, 2005)

Ladybird is rock boiled down to an unbelievably primitive, guitarless essence: as the liners note, "4 drummers, 2 bassists, 1 toy keyboard = 1 riff, 41 minutes = evil fun." This is an album consisting of one 41-minute song, conveniently titled "Ladybird," consisting of the above instrumentation plus Craig Clouse's screamed vocals kept mostly just under the music, reverbed howls and grunts off in the background. The "toy keyboard" they refer to sounds nothing like a Casio you'd use to make cheesy sounds in the '80's and precious, godawful indie rock in the '00's. It keeps modulating between two notes and sounds more like unbelievably well controlled guitar feedback than anything else. (It's also probably this toy keyboard that keeps adding the almost random, tuneless blasts of white noise that float from speaker to speaker.) The power of the album lies in the insanely hypnotic and punishing repetition: the brutally distorted basses cycle through two heavy, vicious, grinding notes, continually gnashing at you, while the 4 sets of drums - which seem to consist of nothing but bass drums and snare drums, maybe floor toms and snare drums - pound out the simplest, heaviest rhythm you can imagine. Maureen Tucker would be proud. Individual musical elements drop out of the piece after about 15 minutes, to the listener's relief, but you know that the keyboard and basses will build up right into the same beyond-relentless riff again, and soon enough it does. While listening, the listener picks up on one aspect of the structure of the piece: every so often, one of the drummers does a snare roll, which signals the bassists and keyboardist to throw in their single variation on the two-note riff, and then it's back to the one riff. Again. And again. And again. It becomes cruel as it continues - you feel like they could've made their point somewhere around the 24th minute with no problems, but that would be detrimental to the goal of shameless sonic overkill they're pursuing. It's merciless enough to make the Butthole Surfers look like toddlers. Obviously, Ladybird has limited usage - it's not exactly something you can throw on in the background, and you can't even listen to it that often in the foreground. (Oddly enough, however, the band's later album Girls Against Shit is far less accessible than this album is, even though it's divided up into 19 songs.) But if you want an album stuck between pure noise destruction and psychedelic jam nirvana that will absolutely beat you into fucking submission and maybe leave you with a splitting headache afterwards, Ladybird is the finest choice you could have. This album/song is "Sister Ray" on Godzilla-powered steroids: it will turn your brain into raspberry jello and your shit into tap water.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #27

The Cure, Seventeen Seconds (Fiction Records, 1980)

Seventeen Seconds is sort of an odd duck in The Cure's discography; it's not quite full-on gothic mope-and-strum like even the next album would be, but it's not even close to the wiry, jumpy, and very energetic Three Imaginary Boys stylistically. That album sounded positively caffeinated and almost happy at times, characterized by a lot of guitar lines with a trebly, scratchy, thin sound that resembled the guitar tones on early Fall records. This album is already a stark contrast. It sounds like The Cure started listening to Unknown Pleasures something fierce. (They did play a show with Joy Division at least once, which lends maybe a tiny bit of credence to my almost-theory.) These kids now sound like they couldn't smile even if they wanted to. The overwhelming emotional tone of the album is stark, distant, downbeat, mechanical and depressed. In a word, the album sounds cold. I don't mean to imply it's a straight copy of Unknown Pleasures, though: just that there was some obvious influence taken, and a clear reorientation of artistic direction.

For one thing, the drumming on Seventeen Seconds is far more robotic than anything Stephen Morris did with Joy Division. Lol Tolhurst plays a total of maybe three drum fills on the entire album, and his drumming was processed throughout to sound unlike standard drums would. This drum sound has led people to regularly mistake his playing for that of a drum machine, hilariously enough. (There is a fascinating article online about how they came up with the drum sound on the album - it's from the magazine Sound on Sound and involves miking the drums with contact mics, which is a miking method I've never heard of anyone else using on drums.) Another thing is that Robert Smith's guitar playing is completely different from the first album - it's always clean, frigid, jerky, tense, rhythmic... and somehow sounds utterly hopeless. There's no guitar distortion on the album at all, and it's hard to say what makes the guitar sound so effective. Some people have said it sounds weak and monotonous, and while the latter charge rings true, the former charge can go jump in a lake. The guitar playing sounds something like David Byrne would've if he'd had incurable depression instead of extreme anxiety and not an ounce of would-be funk in his body. And it works. The best song on the album is the single, "A Forest," but "In Your House," "At Night," "Play For Today," "Secrets" and "Seventeen Seconds" are all nearly as good. It's a very even, atmospheric album, with Smith's vocals mixed pleasingly low along with Matthieu Hartley's ethereal synthesizer, and Simon Gallup's repetitive, moody basslines almost as important to the songs melodically as Smith's guitar. Not many Cure fans share this opinion, but Seventeen Seconds is certainly one of my very favorite Cure albums. It's extremely consistent and atmospheric, and the sound is so generally lined up to my own tastes that it'd be hard for me to dislike it. There are some albums you just can't help really, really liking, and for me, this is one of them.

(Finally, be sure to try and find the video for "A Forest" that the band released - it's low-budget as hell, hilariously minimalist, and Robert Smith looks so much like a bored Ben Affleck that it's positively shocking.)

I'm stuck working a Saturday shift and I'm organizing my bookmarks.

I have no idea who Wye Oak is but I like their cover of Danzig's "Mother". Enjoy.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #26

The Isley Brothers, It's Our Thing (T-Neck, 1969)

The Isleys are one of those acts who have lasted so long that no one can remember when they started and how exactly they lasted so long. Well, the Isleys started in the '50's as a gospel quartet, and they managed to last so long because Ronald Isley is a brilliant (if often too unctuous for his own good on the ballads) soul singer, because Ernie Isley's terrific Hendrix-inspired guitar sound became a wondrous sonic signature for them, and because, to put it uncharitably, they followed trends - from gospel, to soul, to funk, to disco, to electro-dance, to modern R&B. And man, were they good at it. I mean that last sentiment as a compliment, however. The Isleys might have been putting out product at the end of the day, but it was incredibly solid, extremely influential (on James Brown and Jimi Hendrix certainly), consistent, enjoyable, and even wonderful product at its' finest. However, they never innovated too much, except for a few occasions. It's Our Thing, in contrast to much of their discography, shows the Isleys really innovating. Freed from a dictatorial Motown contract that forbid them to write their own material and essentially relegated them to minor artists within the label's pecking order, the Isleys started up their label T-Neck and started writing and recording their own material again. It must have been a huge relief, because they immediately put out a 26-minute LP filled with pleading ballads in the great love man tradition (that Ronald Isley didn't invent, but certainly helped to define), energetic soul belters, and most importantly: brilliant hard funk.

Of the ballads here, "Save Me" features great horn arrangements, a fantastically intricate and almost unnoticed guitar part, and Ronnie wooing the ladies, reveling in his vocal prowess (he sounds utterly delighted with himself every time he hits a high note) and slinging the bullshit as only he can. "Feel Like The World" is a beautifully downtempo number with more fantastic Ronnie Isley showmanship. On these ballads, he's not going to move your soul, but he is going to entertain the hell out of you. The energetic soul belters include "Somebody Been Messin'," where Ronnie exclaims "Aw, let me rap to you this morning!" in the first twenty seconds and pretty much guarantees it as a classic from that point on. (The awesome soul riffs certainly help on that front too.) "I Must Be Losing My Touch" has fantastically driving rhythm and incredible backing vocals that assure Ronnie that he is, indeed, losing his touch. "Don't Give It Away" has great, intricate drum parts, nagging and memorable guitar riffs (including a good solo too), and more of that unimpeachable Isley singing. There's just so much joy in this music! I really have to think that this kind of music is functionally impossible to dislike.

But the best stuff here is the hard funk. Funk was really just starting to gain prominence when the Isleys released this album in February 1969; the Isleys' efforts in the genre really helped to define it. "Give The Women What They Want," "He's Got Your Love" and "I Know Who You Been Socking It To" all have astonishingly strong riffs, singing from Ronnie that's so delighted and so brilliantly performative that it hugely elevates the material, and rhythms that you literally cannot stop yourself from dancing to. But the best song, which all three of those funk songs were probably inspired by, is the almost-title track, "It's Your Thing." (Well, what else was I going to pick?) "It's Your Thing" is one of those songs that was almost certainly regarded as an instant classic when it first came out, and is still a stone classic today. The song is a cornerstone of funk music. It's so good that it actually deserves to be called sublime. It's a stroke of near-total genius and almost certainly the Isleys' finest moment. It's Our Thing is a fantastic snapshot of a very good group at an artistic peak that helped change music.

28 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #25

Palace Songs, Hope 12" EP (Drag City, 1994)

Will Oldham's early recordings were all issued under a variant of the Palace alias, and this particular iteration - in use only once for this EP and two singles - seems to be much praised. In fact, one Louisville poet and singer/songwriter I know who is something of an Oldham aficionado, as well as a friend of the man, ranks this as one of his very favorite Oldham records. I don't quite see eye to eye with that view. This is a very good EP, but in my opinion not quite the best music he was putting out at this time. The early '90's were a fairly amazing run for Oldham as a songwriter: his underrated debut There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You showed that his obsessions with Appalachian melody and songcraft, while not exactly confessional in the standard sense (his songs are often clearly from the viewpoint of characters other than himself, which is fitting given his background in acting), could be imbued with real and frequently terrifying emotion that felt deeply, brutally confessional - most of the songs on that record abounded with frightening depictions of people helplessly caught in the undertow of their own natures. Incest, alcoholism, violence and other deadly sins featured in some songs went head to toe with almost unbearably well-sketched portraits of loneliness so intensely felt that it essentially hollowed out the characters who were singing. Days In The Wake, which followed There Is No-One..., showcased a greatly improved songwriting ability, matched with even more intense and intimate performances; nearly the entire record consisted of Oldham croaking his heart out alone, with a very sloppily played acoustic guitar, yet it's easily one of the best records he's ever made. This EP dates from around the time when Oldham was flirting with a lightening of tone, a brighter ensemble sound that often sounded close to (very) inebriated country-rock. That description makes the music sound sort of horrible, and I definitely don't like the sound he had on Hope as much as I liked the very early Palace records. But it often captured the emotional power that characterizes most of Oldham's music. Viva Last Blues, which showcased this sound at greater length, is often considered one of Oldham's best releases. And both Hope and Viva Last Blues are very good. But not his best.

The thing about Hope is that it just isn't as consistent as past and future Oldham releases. For one thing, it really wouldn't have killed Oldham to actually learn what the chords were to Leonard Cohen's "Winter Lady" before recording it. Songs of Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite records, and I'm sure it's one of Oldham's favorites too, but Oldham's not playing or singing the melody of the song. Instead, Oldham sets Cohen's lyrics to a generic country lope and pretty much butchers the vocal melody. It still works because you'd have to do a whole lot to truly fuck up a Leonard Cohen song, but it doesn't stand up in any way to the original - and since Oldham is worthy of Cohen comparisons at his absolute best, this actually is a real disappointment. Also, a few people seem to single out "Untitled" as one of the best songs here, but I don't really even remember much about it, even though I've listened to it at least three times at this point. I like it when it's on, but it uses a chord progression pretty much everyone plays at some point when they learn how to play guitar.

The other songs range from good to great. "Agnes, Queen of Sorrow" is an instantly memorable song, due to the repeating line, "If you wait another day, I will wait a day" and a very good melody that slowly rises to a powerful crescendo. "All Gone, All Gone" and "Werner's Last Blues To Blokbuster" sound similar to each other, but they're both melodic and compelling songs, the last one in particular riding two piano chords to a great conclusion. "Christmastime In The Mountains" is probably the highlight of the EP: featuring an unbelievably gorgeous vocal melody (for someone who originally couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, Oldham has always come up with wonderful vocal melodies), a beautifully moving chord progression, and fascinatingly ambiguous lyrics, it easily ranks with any of the great Oldham songs. Hope shows Oldham between the unconquerable bleakness of the very early Palace material and the more straightforwardly romantic, more emotionally diverse, more professional and, in the end, more beautiful Bonnie Prince Billy material. It sounds like a transitional record to me. And aside from one more descent into almost impenetrable darkness under the Palace moniker (the underrated, insular, cold, sometimes sketchy but often brilliant Arise Therefore), Oldham would soon make the full evolution to the music he'd make as Bonnie Prince Billy.

25 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #24

Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn  (Mono Mix) (Columbia/EMI, 1967)

Tonight I'm deviating from my original plan (I forget what record I was going to review but it seemed dull) and doing a very specialized review of an album I deeply enjoy, which is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd. I won't really get into the Syd-went-bonkers-and-Roger-got-depressed history, etc. Basically I'm only going to talk about the mixes. (That's right. I'm going full audiophile with this, God help me.)

In the music industry, it was standard practice up until the beginning of 1968 to issue albums in mono and stereo mixes. You see, at that point stereo was regarded as sort of a goofy novelty. It wasn't taken seriously until enough people bought it to make it become industry standard out of necessity. A few pop musicians from the '60's still like the sound of mono - Brian Wilson, for example, still prefers it to stereo. Anyway, what this all means is that in the '60's, albums would be issued in mono and stereo mixes. Frequently, the mixes would be strikingly different from each other, and the stereo mixes would often be tossed off by studio engineers - the mono mixes would be the ones that the band spent time fine-tuning and working on with the engineers. Thing is, when it came time to reissue all these albums on CD - hell, when it came time to reissue all these albums on stereo LP - the tossed-off stereo mixes were, by default, the ones that were used. This means that the mono mixes of many classic albums went relatively unheard by tons of people for years. Both Revolver and Sgt. Pepper are reputedly noticeably different in their mono, band-supervised mixes - I've never heard them - than in their quickie stereo mixes, which became the way most people heard them for decades. Another example of this phenomenon? The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And man, is it different in the mono mix.

I learned tonight that producer Norman Smith did the stereo mix of Piper in a day. I never knew this before. But it certainly does explain why there were just some very... strange mixing decisions on that album that I previously just took for granted. Hey, let's listen to Pink Floyd being psychedelic, you know? It didn't occur to me that cramming the band into one speaker for at least a minute - leaving the left speaker completely silent - might have just been a dude rushing his fucking ass off to get a usable mix for some gullible kids with their new-fangled stereos. Or that the shooting the band around the sonic spectrum for that legendarily disorienting panning effect at the end of "Interstellar Overdrive" was literally someone fucking around with his cool new pan-pot that they'd installed on the mixing console recently. Take off some effects here, subtract some tracks that were all over the song there, hey let's take these kids for all they're worth!

The mono mix doesn't sound completely different - I mean, these are still the same takes and still the same performances. But it's different enough for me to be very surprised. As a whole, the mono mix is much more powerful and, it seems to me, much more guitar-focused than the stereo mix is - though honestly there are times when it sounds like Rick Wright's bizarrely menacing organ is battling with Syd Barrett's blaring, dissonant guitar for dominance. Since it's mono, there are none of the stereo tricks that characterized the stereo mix I'd always heard. There are also effects they put on a few of the tracks in the mono mix that make the songs sound even more disorienting and strange than they already were. Some instruments that were very prominent in the stereo mix get somewhat buried in the mono mix - one somewhat unfortunate example is Roger Waters' awesomely pissed-off bass playing in "Interstellar Overdrive." But you know what? Trying to describe this in general is starting to bore me. Let's get into specifics.

"Astronomy Domine" has the announcer chatter in the center of the mix and starts slightly earlier. It sounds like there's much more natural reverb on the guitar here, and like it's much more upfront and slightly harder-edged than it was in the stereo mix. The drums also sound absolutely cavernous as well - the toms sound massive. The delayed guitar sounds even weirder here, because it's clearer. The organ and bass are farther to the back in this mix than they were in stereo, but the open space in the mono mix is more powerful than in the stereo version because Nick Mason's forcebeat drum smashing is given the sonic space it needs. There's some prominent reverb on Barrett and Wright's singing. 

"Lucifer Sam" is all guitars in the mono mix. Guitars and drums. Waters' bass is solidly on background duty here, and Wright's solely adding texture and trippy atmosphere in the background as well (except for his garage rock organ solo, which sounds like it's straight out of Nuggets). This song rocks even harder in the mono mix because it's so dominated by Barrett's guitar playing. There must be three guitars on this song, at least. This is also probably Nick Mason's best drumming on the album. It might be the hardest he ever rocked in his album career. There's also a lot of reverb on the shaker percussion too for some reason.

Things are a little buried all around on "Matilda Mother." First the guitar and bass are very upfront, then they're all squashed together briefly (because Wright's vocals are at the forefront of the mix and have reverb added to them that make them sound much more distant), then Barrett's guitar, which sounds even treblier and more wiry than it did before, is very upfront during the "Why'd you have to leave me there" section. Things continue in this manner - the instruments do sound a bit pushed together underneath the very reverbed vocals. Then we come to the weird solo section and the guitar and organ suddenly get very loud. This part sounds very unexpectedly violent. The organ in particular sounds extremely strange (mostly because it's louder). The formerly distracting backing vocals are relegated to background duty and given another sheen of reverb. The mono mix makes clear that there's an obvious full-band edit right after the solo section; could they really not make the transition back into the third verse satisfactorily for Smith? Who knows why, but it's there.

"Flaming" sounds really different than before. To wit - the whole track is drenched in primitive phasing and cavernous reverb. There was no phasing at all on the stereo mix and precious little reverb. This version sounds like Smith literally put his thumb on the master as it was playing and then dropped the tapes down a well. The mid-song freakout also sounds much stronger and much scarier - you can really hear how hard they're pounding away at their instruments, Mason in particular. While "Flaming" was never my favorite Piper song, I think the mono mix makes the unsettling juxtaposition between Syd Barrett's childlike lyrics and delivery and the violence of the band's playing very clear. The bizarrely regal tack piano solo is also slightly buried too, again in favor of Barrett's bizarre electric guitar playing. There's so much phase on this version that you can't quite hear the acoustic 12-string guitar clearly. The ringing bells are even higher in the mix on this version than in the stereo version. The whole thing sounds like a really unsettling psychedelic mess - beats the stereo version for sure, although I wish there had been more clarity in the mixing of the 12-string and the piano. There are almost no backing vocals on this version either - the line about the buttercup has no backing vocal there at all.

"Pow R. Toc H." is probably the worst song on Piper, but the mono mix proves you can put lipstick on a pig and have it be semi-successful. There are thankfully no stupid stereo experiments here. The band's clear - not shoved into one speaker - and you can actually hear what's going on. There's noticeable delay and reverb put on the vocals here, which helps. They're still yowling "DOY DOY!!" in stupid voices but you can't have everything. First "jazzy" part of the jam: Massive tom sound here. Nice bass sound. Lead guitar in the deep background during this part? Maybe. You can hear Barrett's swinging acoustic rhythm guitar here quite well, it adds to the track. Is Rick playing the piano with one hand? Sure sounds like it. The sound is much, much, much fuller and more powerful here than in stereo. The second "noisy" part of the jam is more obviously an edit, but it's also more gracefully handled. The sound is suddenly cavernous here. Huge drum sound. It has more upfront screaming and stupid mouth noises (at one point they actually audibly crack each other up, which almost redeems the whole thing then and there), much more upfront and noisy guitar (Syd really smacks it around here), and some competing organ as well. Again, pay attention to how much clearer Barrett's electric guitar work is here.

"Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk" has absolutely no reverb on the vocals: very dry, except for the ending where the vocals are unexpectedly echoed for a few seconds. There's some more very upfront guitar slashing and more competing organ, fuller and more cavernous sound as well for the whole band. It sounds like there's actually two sets of drums dubbed onto this for some reason, though my ears might be playing tricks on me. If you pay attention, though, you can hear where the edit was. (The jam on "Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk" originally lasted something like 15 minutes.) More lipstick on a pig here - the song itself is still garbage, but the jam which is the song's reason to live sounds even more awesome than it did before.

Apparently there were two entire tracks of guitar and organ that didn't make it to the stereo mix of "Interstellar Overdrive." Nice one, Norman. In addition to the lead guitar, the bass, and the low organ, there's a high organ part that simply wasn't there before, and a heavily delayed atonal lead guitar that's buried in the mix (but is nevertheless audibly there - it sounds like a UFO, appropriately). As the band's full-band overdub over their original full-band performance begins to lead into the free-form jam here, you can hear Nick Mason getting totally out of time with his own drumming, it's great. Completely disorienting. This mix doesn't quite emphasize guitar so much as it emphasizes the entire band. It hangs over everything like a noxious cloud full of really, really bad shit. Wright's organ is really reverbed, there's much more reverb on Barrett's guitars (it's also clearer that there must be something like four or five guitar overdubs on this track alone at different points), and it's somehow even more frightening and insane than the stereo version was, which is really quite a feat. You can even hear two bass guitars at points. Two Masons bash away - it's much more powerful. Wright's reverbed background organ playing is in real horror movie territory. I mean, you don't even get the full picture with the stereo mix. I would never have believed that until I actually heard it for myself. This is the triumph of the album, even more than it already was. This is terrifying. And there's no panning at the end. You can hear Barrett detuning his guitar way more clearly in real time. Those are bongos at the end. The segue into "The Gnome" is even more abrupt.

"The Gnome" doesn't have Barrett's voice crammed into one speaker and the band crammed into the other. Instead, Barrett sings over the band like a normal human being would and the mix is much, much, much clearer and more listenable (and not such a fucking headache on headphones). And Waters' absolutely wonderful, bouncy bassline leads the music so well. This is just so much more listenable than the stereo mix was. There's no reverb on the whispered vocal at all. Everything sounds nice and clear here, if a bit cramped occasionally.

The position of the instruments is all central in "Chapter 24." There's no stereo separation at all, and the effect is more overwhelming and more powerful here than in the stereo mix. Here, though, you can actually hear the bells. The vocals in this mix are more prominent and quite reverbed. Wright's organ dominates the sonic picture - the piano sounds as small as it did before. I don't have too much to say about this one. It's not that different, but the mix is clearer and more powerful. A fairly constant theme, no?

"The Scarecrow" lacks stereo separation as well, so that Mason's clip-ty-clop percussion is much easier to hear. The electric guitar is strangely not too prominent in this mix - it may be less prominent here than in the studio mix. Barrett's vocals are very upfront, but overall I'd say this is the closest to the stereo mix. Almost nothing was changed.

The first part of "Bike" features a few intriguing differences. There's no reverb on the full band's performance at all during the verses - it makes it easier to hear what they're doing, for sure. They are all smashed together in the middle of the mix, but you can hear Wright's goose-stepping piano (which is what makes it sound confusingly warbly), Barrett's guitar, and the organ on top and slightly in the background. During the "You're the kind of girl" sections, there's that bizarre, primitive (if nowhere near as overwhelming) phasing from "Flaming" again, and it's on Barrett's voice and the "BAM! BAM!" percussive stuff that everyone who's heard the song knows. It sounds really weird (and good). There's also a ton of reverb put on the regal tack piano - which almost disappears during the "You're the kind of girl" sections.  However, as far as I can tell, there's little difference between the mono and stereo mixes for the second part of "Bike," outside of more clarity in mixing. The second section is quite reverbed at first, but there's absolutely no reverb on anything by the time the chipmunk laugh loop comes in to finish the album.

Well after all that, I hope I've basically convinced you to go listen to the mono mix of this record if you like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn at all; as far as I'm concerned it beats the pants off the stereo mix, which I'd always been used to. Finally, there's one thing I've noticed about this album that I sort of want to get off my chest: for a bunch of dudes who later went on to occasionally insult punk music in interviews, the general virtuosity level on this album is pretty much at punk level or below. Hell, I think most punks were better instrumentalists than these guys. They could barely play their instruments on this album, and you can really fucking tell. Mason plays so many stiffly rudimentary beats on this album that it's kind of amazing. I mean, I can barely keep a steady rhythm and I could probably learn how to play most of these songs. Please realize that none of this is meant to be insulting, of course. These guys really were amateurs on this album (one handed keyboard solos! flatly amateurish drumming! guitar solos that consisted of nothing but insane slashing and distorted noise!), and really it all paid off tremendously. It worked. This album sounds like no other album. It was a huge influence on me - Barrett's chaotic guitar style, especially, was an inspiration, along with his songwriting. I originally bought a Telecaster because I wanted to sound a bit like Barrett. Hearing this album in the mono mix was not quite like hearing it for the first time, but it redefined an album that was really essential to my musical development.

23 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #23

Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster Recordings/Matador, 1996)

I pretty much thought I'd hate this record because it was reputed to be almost aggressively fey, semi-orchestrated indie pop. And indeed, it is almost aggressively fey, semi-orchestrated indie pop. So was The Life Pursuit, a later album of Belle and Sebastian's I once heard and greatly disliked when I wasn't being bored to sleep by it. Make no mistake - I am generally not the target audience for this kind of music. So what makes me like this record? And what makes me bump this above The Life Pursuit, or many other examples of bad and actively irritating music? The differences between so many failed albums full of twee birdshit and this one are simple: songwriting and honesty. The songcraft here is extremely difficult to deny, and what's more the style is fairly hard for me to deny as well. If You're Feeling Sinister almost sounds like a combination of the late-'60's Kinks at their most placid, easily satiric and relaxed with Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake. Those are really good artists for me to be reminded of. Many of the songs here have that same irresistible verve and subtle rhythmic drive that characterized songs like "Hazey Jane II." And yes, these songs are honest. This music is obviously genuine. I may be a devotee of noise rock and hardcore, but I'm not going to sit here and say that everyone should make loud music about how much they hate themselves and the world around them. Stuart Murdoch could no more make hardcore punk than Ian MacKaye could sing U2 songs. It may not be something I want to hear every day, but this is subtle, beautiful and melodic music, and Murdoch's lisping, soft tenor voice sounds disarmingly natural over these songs. It's almost impossible to hate this record when you're alone with it, unless you're so insistent on being bombarded with noise that anything less than speed-guitars going crunchacrunchacrunch at 1000 miles per hour sounds like shit to you. I could understand not liking massive fans of this band, but the record itself is sweet and decent, and often funny.

If there's one real problem I have with this record as a whole, besides how unbelievably fey it is the entire way through (sorry), it's that you have to read the lyrics in order to get how funny they often are, because Murdoch's diffident singing disguises them most of the time. That's a drawback, because often enough the lyrics here are clearly Smiths-inspired in the best way - influenced by Morrissey's over-the-top wit and humor, not his ruminative and self-indulgent despair. The title track has a deeply amusing line about a girl who's into "S&M and bible studies," and it ends by suggesting that the key to conquering religious doubt is masturbation. There are other problems here and there - the overactive harmonica on "Me and the Major" is a major, whinnying annoyance, the trumpet on "Judy and the Dream of Horses" is sort of ridiculous, and the sappy strings on "The Boy Done Wrong Again" push the song just over the line into corny territory - but overall, I can't do anything but say that this is a very good, extraordinarily pleasant, mild and cynical record. Mild and cynical. That's a much harder combination to pull off than it sounds.

22 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #22

Slices, Still Cruising (Iron Lung Records, 2012)

Oh man does this record ever rule. While it's not a completely unexpected followup to Slices' debut Cruising, it certainly is much more of a stylistic departure than you'd expect from the band. Cruising was an excellent, unexpectedly arty hardcore record that primarily distinguished itself through a collection of deeply fucked up (and great) riffs, awfully convincing psychotic shouting, and an incredibly bitter, disturbed and threatening emotional atmosphere. On Still Cruising, the riffs retain the quality of before, but the emotions have significantly lightened. The vocals no longer sound tortured, but they're just as intense as before: there's almost a sense of joy in the singer's shouting on the happier songs. Oh yeah, speaking of happier songs... Unexpectedly, the happier songs are the better songs here. The band was so convincing and frightening on Cruising that it almost seemed like they'd never end up feeling happiness again. But on the more cheerful songs here, the band manages to combine the intensity, brutality and speed of great hardcore with classic rock-influenced riffs and a wonderfully happy-go-lucky, boozy rock and roll sensibility. And this combination is insanely hard to pull off correctly. One band that sort of managed to do this was Harvey Milk, with The Pleaser. But remember, Harvey Milk was an experimental doom metal band making a full-on classic rock record. Slices are a hardcore band combining existing elements of their sound with classic rock-influenced riffs. The fusion here of hardcore and classic rock, shockingly, isn't awkward or corny at all. It's so natural that it feels like Slices were almost supposed to take this stylistic route, when they could easily have made a Cruising Part II with no complaints from their fan base. And the record feels like it gets even more enjoyable as it goes along. "Horse Race," "Class Time," and "All My Life" are all filled with awesome riffs, shredded-throat screaming and pure rock and roll attitude. Actual rock and roll. Remember what that sounds like? It sounds like the AC/DC-influenced boogie-at-lightspeed riffage of "Trying To Make a Living," or the brilliant garage rock hardcore of "Slices Is Dirts," or the catchy, great, slide guitar-infused "Why Do You Make Yourself So Sad." And the funniest moment is... well, I can't spoil that for you, because it's really, really funny. But it soon makes way for the most blindingly intense hardcore on the record - and, needless to say, Slices is really, really good at making blindingly intense hardcore. That they managed to fuse this approach with catchy, feel-good hooks and riffage is a stylistic and artistic coup, and it distinguishes one of the best and most under-appreciated records that came out this year.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #21

Pop. 1280, The Horror (Sacred Bones, 2012)

This came out in January and was an early highlight of the year. Pop. 1280's sound - a surprisingly natural amalgam of Chris Bug's theatrically paranoid rockn'roll sneer, Ivan Lip's Birthday Party-worshipping guitar, Cop Shoot Cop bass grinding, monolithic synth lines that call to mind Suicide, Devo and even Cabaret Voltaire occasionally, and stiffly unorthodox, stop and start rhythms that sometimes slightly recall The Scream-era Siouxsie and the Banshees - consolidates itself into a far artier and darker, though not quite as intense or hooky entity on this album. Where their first EP, The Grid, featured some extraordinarily catchy, funny and/or hard-rocking songs on it - "Step Into The Grid," "Redtube" and "Midget" come to mind in particular - the closest thing The Horror has to a song like any of those is a synthesizer-corroded tom-trashing number called "Bodies In The Dunes," which repeats its main theme ad nauseum as Bug talks about seeing dead bodies wrapped head to toe in a sack. The enjoyably campy humor that was such a distinguishing characteristic of the band on The Grid has mostly vanished here, with the exception of the hilariously lockstep dance of "Hang 'em High." And the full-on descents into all-out noise rock hell, as characterized by The Grid's "Data Dump" and the career peak of B-side "Dead Hand," are also mostly not in evidence. What is here, though, is a deeply depressive, clotted, cold sound. It sounds like Pop. 1280 have finally committed fully to the dystopia they'd previously had a sense of humor about before. Most of the instruments are grouped together in the middle of the mix, sounding like one smoggy cloud full of enough nightmares to last you a few weeks. This album is a bleak lump of distemper, and at its' best - "Bodies In The Dunes," the vicious opening one-two punch of "Burn The Worm" and "New Electronix," the organ-driven dirge "Beg Like a Human," the wonderfully driving and pulsing "Crime Time" - it takes the band to coldly hateful places they've never been before. And while I hope that their next album puts together the frigid, creepy artiness on display here with the hooky humor of before and the completely unhinged, brain-frying noise they're eminently capable of, The Horror is a great debut album, which takes many risks with a strongly established sound and mostly succeeds.

21 September, 2012

I'm fairly sure no one cares but

I'm watching Casino and Droopy cartoons tonight. I'll post two reviews tomorrow. I don't feel like writing.

20 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #20

FNU Ronnies, Saddle Up (Load Records, 2012)

FNU Ronnies are completely and totally out of their gourd, as a unit and to a man. The band is a completely skewed Philadelphia/San Francisco power trio made up of bandleader Jim Vail on vocals and guitar, Michael Reaser on bass and the amusingly named Street Kyle on drums and electronics. This last credit goes at least some way toward explaining how bizarre this band sounds, because seemingly every sound on this record has been treated way past any reasonable level of taste or sanity. Every word out of Vail's mouth alone sounds nearly as processed, watery and warped as any that came out of Stephen Mallinder between 1978 and 1982. That's not even considering the fact that he double-tracks his vocals in the most abstract manner possible on every song, or that his vocal style is something akin to the distressed groaning, shrieking and ranting of a homeless man pleading with the devil who's just appeared with eyes of fire and evil in front of him, or that the guitars on this album sound like wrought-iron nails scraping the world's biggest blackboard after being dipped in hydrochloric acid. Add the genuinely random samples that bookend at least a few of the songs here, the often completely manic tempos and performances (there are at least a few songs where it sounds like Street Kyle is almost struggling to keep up with the rest of the band), and the lo-fi, drastically overstuffed nature of the mix on at least half the album, and you may be wondering why you should listen to this. The reason is that this is one of the better combinations of sheer dementia and covert catchiness I've heard in a long time. Saddle Up is a drugged-up 24-minute mess of uncut punk energy and tunefulness, nearly drowned underneath chaos, noise and simply pure derangement. (It really can't be stressed enough.) Imagine Alien Soundtracks-era Chrome without the guitar solos crossed with Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables-era Dead Kennedys, with maybe some early Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle in the general attitude toward mixing, and you'll have a decent idea of what FNU Ronnies sound like. At the end of the day, the utter insanity still serves every one of the songs here, and while I'm still not sure this tops the band's earlier, heavier EP Golem Smoke, Saddle Up is easily one of the five best records that's been released thus far this year. This album makes the Butthole Surfers look like chumps.

19 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #19

Masayuki Takayanagi/Kaoru Abe, Mass Projection (DIW Records, 2001; rec. live, 1970)

This album is a 50-plus minute 1970 live recording of mind-destroying, vicious free improvisation, somewhere on the cusp between extremely uninhibited free jazz and total noise. On this album, two legendary figures of Japan's free jazz scene - alto saxophonist Kaoru Abe, whose approach to the instrument is somewhat reminiscent of early Albert Ayler during his more extreme explorations, and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi, who has been referred to as a sort of Japanese Derek Bailey - take an excoriating journey to the farthest regions of instrumental expression. Abe's playing is extremely abrasive on its' own, but Takayanagi's playing is almost indescribable. The comparison to Bailey is somewhat off base. Bailey, like Takayanagi, was a pioneering guitarist who did much to bring free improvisation ever closer to total abstraction. Bailey, however, was far more obviously theoretical in his approach to the instrument. The scrapes, clangs and whizzes he made his instrument cough up felt like an academically considered thesis about the futility of tune. Takayanagi is equally proficient as a guitarist, maybe even more proficient technically than Bailey was. In contrast, however, he is far more visceral in his approach to the instrument. There is fire in his playing. Every howl and screech that he conjures up has live-wire emotional content behind it. Both players, in fact, shower the listener in horrifically brilliant noise improvisation with palpable emotion at the core of their approaches to their music.

There are two tracks on this album. They both go over 25 minutes. It is an almost completely unrelenting, merciless assault of atonality. Perhaps the best comparison is not to other free jazz, but to another pioneering 1970 album: the Stooges' Fun House. Because Mass Projection sounds something like "L.A. Blues" sans drums, bass and vocals, carried out for almost an hour, with an almost arbitrary break in between. That might sound daunting, and well, this album is daunting. But I'm unsure if anyone else dared to go this far out in 1970. If there were other travelers on this territory, they were very far and few between indeed. There is, however, one softening of the action during the last half of the second improvisation, which is an opportunity for Abe to play surprisingly soft, uncannily lyrical anti-melodies on a reeded shakuhachi. The impact of Takayanagi's grotesquely distorted, feedbacking guitar slashing in again is almost unbearable.

This album is 100 percent raw nerve.

Prince Buys a Birthday Card

18 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #18

Simply Saucer, Cyborgs Revisited (1989, Mole Sound Records/Cargo Records; rec. 1974-1975)

1974 and 1975 were sort of fallow years for rock and roll, at least at the mainstream level. Don't get me wrong, there were some amazing records released during those years (a few that come to mind include Big Star's Radio City, everything Roxy Music was doing, John Cale's Fear, Eno's three statements of genius, Physical Graffiti, Wish You Were Here, Blood On The Tracks, Neil Young's On The Beach and Tonight's the Night, King Crimson's Red, Todd Rundgren's Todd... well, that's actually a pretty good roll call, and I know there are other great ones I'm not even remembering), but in general, the albums and singles charts were dominated with, basically, soft rock and horrible pop. Terrible songs. Songs like "Having My Baby," one of the worst singles of all time. Eric Clapton's version of "I Shot The Sheriff." "Love Will Keep Us Together." Born To Run (look, you can defend Springsteen but I won't outside of Nebraska). "I Write The Songs." "Have You Never Been Mellow." 461 Ocean Boulevard. "One of These Nights" by the Eagles, with those dog-whistle harmonies and those lyrics that make it a particular anthem for amateur stalkers. You know. Warm shit encased in plastic. With this kind of crap dominating the radio it's no wonder Lester Bangs was issuing forth so many jeremiads about the dire state of rock and roll. However, in 1974 and 1975 there were some bands who had actually bought Velvet Underground and Stooges records, who managed to record themselves making mind-boggling music that, predictably, never broke through to a wider audience but influenced tons of other like-minded refuseniks in the rock and roll underground. One of those bands was Simply Saucer.

Simply Saucer were unfashionable. Flat out. They had no image to speak of (which the Velvets and Stooges had in spades). They didn't look cool. They were nerds who were stuck in Hamilton, Ontario, in the mid-'70's. This wasn't exactly a recipe for success, especially from a foursome in 1974 who had obvious Velvets influences. It's most likely that most people who heard Simply Saucer in Hamilton during 1974 probably reacted with indifference and confusion. But Simply Saucer sure sound like some cool cats today. These guys were making music that took equal influence from a ton of soon-to-be-hip sources like the aforementioned Velvets and Stooges, but also Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Eno-era Roxy Music, solo Eno, early garage rock, maybe a little glam, maybe some Krautrock here and there if they'd managed to get their hands on it, and more Detroit proto-metal. This list of records I just reeled off is pretty much essential listening for pretty much any indie rock band today.

The band was headed by lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Edgar Breau (the poor sap didn't even have a cool name), who had an awesome semi-tuneful Lou Reed/Jonathan Richman-type rock and roll voice and some badass guitar chops - definitely no amateur. This dude could rip off some great solos: while he didn't really go for Barrett-esque atonal echo box chaos on lead guitar, he did enjoy himself some needling, trebly, strangled wah/fuzz lead lines that sound like his main influence was Michael Karoli from Can (hence the Krautrock mention). He also had a really cool, driving rhythm guitar style that sounded like he'd managed to combine Lou Reed and Syd Barrett for himself in a natural and unforced manner. This enterprising young fellow somehow managed to find three other dudes who were just as uncool-yet-will-be-cool-in-30-plus-years-time as he was: steadily rock-and-rolling drummer Neil DeMerchant, Trevor Bolder/Dennis Dunaway-esque melodic bass dude Kevin Christoff, and electronics operator/synthesist Ping Romany, who was very much in the Brian Eno/Dikmik mold on his chosen instruments, and nearly as good at buzzing, atonal, weirdo freakouts as his predecessors were.

For the most part, Simply Saucer's attitude toward writing songs seemed to be this: A) Write really catchy intro and verse. Maybe a chorus if you're really feeling melodic that day. B) Freak the fuck out, but in a musical (not atonal or free-noise) context. C) Get back to the main verse when you feel like it, sing different verse lyrics to the same melody. D) Finish. Bam. Another classic. If the song feels too normal, get your buddy Ping over there to add his usuals and the song automatically sounds less conventional. It sounds like a formula. It might be one. But it's one that paid off really hard artistically. Because these songs are really, really, really great.

Side A consists of six short, ultra-catchy songs that still manage to freak out every which way before settling down enough to end in three minutes and under. Side B consists of three extended songs recorded live with surprisingly good sound that show off what this band could do when they let themselves jam. (They were absolute motherfuckers live.) Both sides are great, and are also distinct entities from each other that still somehow manage to coalesce, but the highlights of the album are "Bullet Proof Nothing" - the most conventional song, which sounds like Simply Saucer going '70's pop with disarmingly catchy results - and "Illegal Bodies," a ten-minute mindfuck with paint-stripping and just psychotically awesome lead guitar.

This band never got their due. You should listen to this record right now. Drop what you're doing and give it your time.

(Please note: This review concerns the original 1989 issue of Cyborgs Revisited, not the later version with extra tracks.)

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #17

Smog, Burning Kingdom EP (Drag City, 1994)

This is one of the most starkly unhappy and depressive records in Bill Callahan's discography, which is actually saying something. Never one to shy away from dark thoughts and feelings early on in his career, Callahan's songwriting on Burning Kingdom displays an incessantly apocalyptic and bitter viewpoint. The record begins with "My Shell [Electric Version]," which takes a defiantly lo-fi single that featured a surly, weedy vocal and an acoustic guitar so grotesquely over-recorded that it may as well have been run through a distortion pedal, and renders it in a huge, well-produced, stormy performance with a full band that is about a thousand times more foreboding and frightening than the early version was. Callahan's lyrics are sometimes so ridiculously depressive that they're actually pretty funny, which is the point: "When you crawl into my shell/You're after my jokes/They serve you well." Droning cellos, thundering drums, and Callahan's best performance on guitar at that time all serve to make this scarily effective. The EP is relentlessly bleak. A melodic, almost incongruously carefree vocal from Cynthia Dahl (who died this year in April) graces the musically fragile and lyrically vicious "Renee Died 1:45," and the keyboards in the background of "Drunk on the Stars" are nearly ambient, but besides those two things, there's no relief from the overwhelming emotional tone of bilious depression, or Callahan's sneering baritone groan of a voice. There are some unfortunately corny and terrible guitar melodies on "Not Lonely Anymore," but there are no missteps otherwise. "The Desert" is almost nothing but processed organ and Callahan's deadpan voice spelling out unconquerable malaise. This is probably one of the better indie EP's released during the '90's, but it's hard to figure out how Callahan could have gone any farther in this direction without turning into a self-parody. Even his next two releases, the often great Wild Love and the wildly inconsistent but sometimes spellbinding The Doctor Came at Dawn, aren't quite so resolutely down in the mouth as Burning Kingdom is.

17 September, 2012

Your weekly musicians' ads.

This weekend actually had a ton of stuff going on: There was the third annual Anarchist Book Fair at Powderhorn Park (I went, didn't stay, and some high school looking bird tried to get my attention, which was weird) and the Electric Fetus Garage Sale (I scored two LPs and two CDs for two dollars fourteen cents). There was also a beer festival and a drum circle that I didn't find out about until after they were over and I'm OK with that.
I'm just saying that there was a lot of stuff going on what with summer drawing to a close. That's what happens every summer in the Twin Cities. People freak the fuck out and go outside for the last few days of eighty degree weather. Thus not that many weirdoes were inside. Except for this lot.

Please help an abroad college kid get a CD to his girl in the states

I imagine a wounded soldier on the battlefield looking up at the field medic, handing him a letter that he's kept on him for just such a disaster, a letter that tells his girl that he loves her and he won't be coming home and he looks up at the doctor and says, "Doc, you gotta do me a favor, Doc. You gotta get this to Jenny, Doc, my girl back in the states."
At least that's what I see in my mental cinema.

Date: 2012-09-17, 2:30AM CDT

I am currently abroad in Europe for the semester and my special girl (from nebraska) Coincidentally, I'm preparing to review Springsteen's Nebraska later this week. is about to go on a cross country trip. And she is going to cheat on you. No doubt about it. You're in Europe where you just know she's sure you're fucking around and so now, without her friends or family around to keep her in check, she's going to go on a tour of fifty states' worth of revenge dicks.
There's also the part where she totally wouldn't do that but I like the scenario that makes you paranoid.
She wanted me to make her a CD to listen to on her road trip, Gag me.
Oh, wait. Couples actually do - what's that word? nice things for each other?
Still. Gag me.
but I don't think it will make it there in time. Because you were off bangin' two Belgian chicks at the same time instead of making a mix CD for your girlfriend like you were supposed to.
Sure, you totally weren't, but I like the scenario that makes "your girl" paranoid.

I would appreciate if someone out there could send her a CD with a few songs, no matter the genre. III'''mmm not sure you really want that to happen. Have you thought this through? Just something to let her know that I'm still thinking about her. Nothing says "thinking about you, boo" like the forty or so CD-R burns of Morbid Florist that she's about to get, thanks to you. You asshole.

If you have someone special Nope! then you know how important it is for me to make this happen. [starts burning a copy of Morbid Florist]

Her address is Oh. Shit. He's actually going to... No, he wouldn't, would he? XXXX Xxxxxxx Xx Omaha, NE XXXXX. You. Dipshit. Do you have any idea how irresponsible that is? [checks progress on that copy of Morbid Florist] Please address it to NNNOOO!!! Xxxxxx. You. Jackass. [writes address on envelope]

Thank you so much [starts burning a copy of Naked City's Absinthe]
  • it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
PostingID: xxxxxxxxxx

Drummer Wanted for Pop Rock/Punk Band (ATL, YC, P!ATD) (Burnsville)

Date: 2012-09-16, 7:42PM CDT

My band is currently looking for a drummer. We play Pop Rock/Punk music; some of our main influences include All Time Low, Yellowcard, Panic! At The Disco, etc.

-We're all in our late teens slash early 20s, so be in that age range. If you're not, fix that. And, pray tell, how does one pull that off, junior?
-Must be motivated and willing to make the time commitment. This isn't a jam band. Uh, jam bands are pretty motivated and committed. No, I can't stand the music but you can't deny their work ethic. We eventually want to tour at some point Like jam bands do all of the fucking time. You can't stop a jam band from touring. Hell, most jam bands have no legitimate reason for owning or renting homes of any sort because they're always on the road. It's what they're known for. and try to make something out of this. Right and the Grateful Dead, the most legendary of all jam bands, has no recognizable iconography or reputation whatsoever. They totally didn't make anything out of themselves.
(For the record, just want to remind people that I'm not down with that hippie shit. It's just that I'm more not down with idiots.

-Preferably have your own kit but worst case we have one.
-Must bring cupcakes to every practice. Shut up and quit trying to be zany.

Those are the requirements. The last one was optional but strongly encouraged. Shoot me an email with some info and maybe your Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube videos if you have any so we know you are in fact real and not a Catholic priest. What the hell does Catholicism have to do with anything? We love to spoon as much as the next guy, but we're not going to play Hot Cross Buns with you. OK, asshole. You finally did it. You made me Google something to try to figure out what the hell you're going on about. And you know what? I still don't know what you're going on about. That last sentence made no sense. "Hot Cross Buns" is an English nursery rhyme that has nothing to do with guy-on-guy sex. So, please, explain to me what the hell you mean.

  • Location: Burnsville
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PostingID: xxxxxxxxxx

As I do every once in a while, I try to not make these things all about the negativity. Here's a band that needs help booking shows. I'm not anonymizing it in the hopes that you, mon petit illiterati, will help them out if you can. So, please, nobody here use their info to be dicks.
Also? Asian twins! Adorable!

touring indie electronic rock band looking for gigs (minneapolis/st. paul)

Date: 2012-09-15, 2:47AM CDT
 cjf9f-3263613056@comm.craigslist.org [Errors when replying to ads?]


We're an indie electronic rock band named Claudeo (http://claudeo.com/) from San Diego that are on tour this fall. We're looking for any open shows in or near Minneapolis early-mid October (sometime between 10/6 and 10/12 preferred). We have a demo that can be heard here: http://claudeo.bandcamp.com/

Thanks for checking us out!

  • Location: minneapolis/st. paul
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PostingID: 3263613056

Let's start a band (United States)

Where in the United States?

Date: 2012-09-13, 8:53PM CDT
Reply to: xxxxx-xxxxxxxxxx@comm.craigslist.org

I am a female singer, banjo/ukulele/guitar player Hi, Zooey! and want to start a band. That is all. Email me if you are interested in the band, it will be epic. As epic as this ad.
  • Location: United States
  • it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
PostingID: xxxxxxxxxx

16 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #16

Bloodclot Faggots, Bloodclot Faggots 7" (No Patience, 2010)

Bloodclot Faggots were a little-known Australian hardcore band, named after one of the most infamously homophobic incidents in hardcore history, who committed a truly heroic piece of frothing dementia to vinyl and then disappeared from sight. This 7" was recorded with a homemade engineering job that makes Beat Happening seem hi-fi and makes leagues of other ostensible punk bands irrelevant. First off, this 7" is the trebliest little thing you may ever hear in your life that isn't pure feedback. There's ostensibly a bassist on this (credited poetically as "Fuckbutt") but outside of one or two extremely faint notes on the first song he might as well be playing in the other room away from the rest of the band. It is all about a lunatic guitarist with a tinny copper-wire scratchola tone hacking out extremely catchy anthems, a drummer playing the worst kit you could find in a rehearsal room at lightspeed, and a truly genius vocalist who grunts, roars, sneers and gurns out hilarious in-joke "punk" lyrics taken so far into alternate-dimension territory that you just have to bask in the sheer brilliance of it all. This guy's delivery is so far beyond over the top that he's actually near the demented heights of roaring glory that Grong Grong vocalist Michael Farkas regularly scaled on the essential bootleg Live at the Berkeley Hotel. Get a load of what kind of bilious Aussie fuck-you-and-your-little-dog-too ramalama this dude is puking into your ear canal: "Rotten sore/What a chore/I'm so bored/Gonna snore/A million bucks/To cut my lunch/Edge as/The Brady Bunch/Media blitz/Shitty fix/That's all folks/Just a hoax/We're in town/So wear a frown/Our own biggest fans/Quit all your bands/Just do it/Fuck yourself." Those are the words for the first song, "Big in Adelaide," quoted in their entirety. Verily, this man is a poet, a philosopher even. The band keeps up with him throughout all six-plus minutes, unbelievably enough. This 7" is the sound of four fucked-off-beyond-all-fucked-off dudes sitting around in a shitty middle-of-nowhere town, hating the world, hating themselves, hating their options in life, hating the ridiculous rules hardcore unintentionally imposed on punk rock, knowing that they'll probably never be heard outside their own town and maybe a couple of countries somewhere now because of the Internet, and just recording themselves getting one massive brainless amphetamined foaming yawp out. And really, getting that yawp out is what all good music is about, at heart. Someone's blowing a whistle repeatedly on the second song for no reason. It doesn't matter. What rock and roll is all about is in that stupid whistle.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #15

Grimes, Visions (4AD, 2012)

I had no chance to get to a computer all day, so I'll review this album in a sentence: I wouldn't torture terrorists with Claire Boucher's singing.

14 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #14

Group Home, Livin' Proof (Payday/FFRR/PolyGram Records, 1995)

This album is infamous for the incredible beats, created by DJ Premier working at peak capability, and the supposedly sub-sub-subpar rhyming on top. People have dumped on the rapping here for years and years. Lil Dap and Melachi the Nutcracker are both regarded by "real hip-hop" fans as almost the definition of wack MC's, who somehow lucked on top on the best beats Premier ever created. If only Nas had rapped on top of these beats for It Was Written (which, admittedly, would have made for a better album than anything Nas has released since Illmatic)... if only Guru had rapped on top of these beats and this had been a Gang Starr album... if only Jeru the Damaja had rapped on top of these beats... if only Craig G had rapped on top of these beats... if only Biggie had made this the followup to Ready To Die (which would have never happened because Puffy barely let two Premier beats on Life After Death)... if only... if only...

Yeah whatever. Dap somehow gets regarded as the better (or at least barely adequate) MC of the two rappers here, but he has a weird froggy lisping style that sounds odd and sort of dumb, if indeed adequate. Melachi the Nutcracker, though, gets slammed left and right for being one of the world's worst MC's. This shall not stand. Melachi is not even near the same league of pure lousiness as Plies or Silkk the Shocker, to cite two examples of truly garbage rappers. Melachi is an ultra-simplistic MC, there's no question about it, but he is incredibly entertaining on this album: his rapping is elementary as all hell, but truly hilarious, awesome and never boring (which so many more conventionally accomplished rappers can be - Saigon, anyone?) Melachi has a really cool, mid-ranged, raw New York rap voice which is full of a sincere teenage enthusiasm and passion that can't be faked. The obvious enthusiasm, and the fact that he keeps a straight face throughout, makes him a whole lot funnier and more entertaining than some generically competent gangsta MC talking about the same old shit would've been. He also makes his rudimentary raps flow pretty well, and sells them 100%. His great subject is how he will beat your ass, elucidated in the most elementally basic way possible. His rapping will have you in stitches sometimes. I mean, this guy actually raps: "Cause there's no tricks, when I let off clips! I leave bodies in ditches! Play bitch niggas like bitches!" That's right. "Bitch niggas like bitches." Twice in the same bar. He's at least 10+ years before Waka Flocka Flame would come around with "Hard In The Paint." Is it ridiculous? You don't say, Captain Obvious, now go buy a Papoose mixtape. Do you like it anyway? Uh, fuck yes you do, because Melachi is charismatic, young and gut-busting. There are lines like this all over the album. And they are awesomely funny. "Deadly like a rattlesnake, except I don't rattle." "Eating MC's like Jeffrey Dahmer!" "I'm outta sight on the mic! Do what you like! I hit ya moms in the head with a metal pipe!" Genius. Pure genius.

Of course, the beats on here are amazing. DJ Premier regularly gets worshiped by anyone who knows their shit as one of the best hip-hop producers to have ever lived. And this album is, well, livin' proof on that front. (Get off your "I hate puns" high horse and blow me.) The beats here are really atmospheric and jazzy, yet sound rough and have real impact. The rhythms are consistently hard-hitting, and the layered samples continually create melodies that end up sticking in your head. There's the ride-cymbal rhythm intersecting with the looped Nas sample and ghost piano note on "Inna-Citi Life." There's the contemplative, wistful bass line and pitch-manipulated strings on "Baby Pa" that come in after the gritty, assertive guitar line that soundtracked the beat before that on the same song. There's the stop-start rhythm, two-note bass thump, and chiming keyboards of "2 Thousand." Instrumentally, this album is what happens when a master beatmaker and producer with one of the most imitated styles in hip-hop is given practically free reign to create whatever the hell he wants. Even the two songs that weren't produced by Premier are good: "4 Give My Sins" features an incredibly beautiful introductory instrumental segment that unfortunately isn't elaborated on afterwards. Some great New York MC needs to hijack that segment for a beat someday. But the best song was released as the lead single. "Supa Star" is simply quintessential mid-'90's hip-hop - from the absolutely brilliant beat, to Melachi and Dap's extremely simplistic but technically competent and extremely real lyrics (even here, I'd give Melachi the upper hand), to the subject everyone can identify with - these two kids' reasons for wanting to become rap superstars, which are, predictably, related to getting the fuck out of the ghetto, and their dreams of what it'll be like to become rap superstars - it's just a classic song.

Livin' Proof is a great album with unconventionally awesome rapping that relies way more on force of personality and unintentional humorousness than any kind of superhuman technical rapping, and that's honestly just fine. You should really hear it someday.

It's Friday: Let's Piss Off Amanda Palmer!

It's been eons since we had a Friday Piss-Off, but that was just because nobody needed a shenanigan calling.
And then a benevolent god showed Kickstarter to Amanda Palmer.
Dear Amanda,
Full disclosure: I want to begin by letting you know that I'm not a fan of yours. I liked one Dresden Dolls record for a while, then, after a longer while, I liked maybe only half of the songs on it, then I just stopped listening to it, and I can't even remember the name of it. I remember it's the one where you and the drummer are dancing on the cover. No, I cannot be arsed to look up which one it is but you know the one I'm talking about.
Further, though I am a musician, I do not play any of the instruments you need on your upcoming tour. You need strings and brass or winds and brass, something like that, am I right? I don't play any of those. So there's that.
Now for the meat:
I'm writing to you in regard to your recent success on raising US$1,192,793 to physically produce, distribute, and promote your latest record, the title of which I can't be arsed to look up. Apparently it comes with a book? And there's an ├╝ber-swanky package that comes with a goddamned record player? You're selling fucking stereo equipment. OK.
That's a pretty ambitious project. Fuck knows I've never thought about packaging stereo equipment in with any of my records. But my records are also recorded on a budget of three or four Pabsts in a studio that's really just a corner in my quarters. (FYI, I live where I work, Mandy.)
Now, I know that much ado has been made about your recent $1.2 million dollar windfall. You've even disclosed exactly how you allocated that money. I tried to read your breakdown but, Jesus, lady... First of all, please please please learn that capital letters aren't merely for emphasis. They begin new sentences and proper nouns. Secondly, could you try an easy to read typeface? Try an Arial or a Verdana or a Trebuchet for Christ's sake. So, no, didn't make it through your accounting. Other people have been adventurous enough to strain their eyes reading that bullshit and they say you pay for some really unnecessary shit or you pay way too much for something that you could get manufactured or otherwise taken care of for much cheaper through another service provider... blah blah blah.
The end result is that you got a million bucks and you pissed it away.
Sure you have staff to pay, art to commission, all kinds of things that most musicians wouldn't even think of having. (Out of all of my friends and friends' bands, I can't think of one who has a staff.) But, hey, I get it. You had people on your payroll for this one very big extravagant project. You put together a whole new band, you have gallery showings and shit, there's that thing with the stereo equipment. And after paying for all of the parts and labor on this thing, you're broke all over again.
Thing is, your goal for the project was set at a hundred thou. (That's Kickstarter's maximum, isn't it?) What did you think you were going to be able to pull off for a tenth of what you ultimately brought in? Or were you counting on manna from heaven the whole time?
And now, after your fans have thrown you over a million dollars, you're asking some of them to play with you as part of an expanded band on your tour. You show up in their town, they go to rehearsal, they join you on stage that night. You go to the next town and hook up with the fans there.
And you're paying them in beer.
You're paying people who just gave you a million dollars in beer.
Again, I get it. You put that million dollars into the costumes and the paintings and the extra cool packaging and the turntables and you had to pay the pressing plants and the printers and your staff and all that. After pissing away all that money, there was nothing left to pay your guest musicians with. Unless, of course, you're playing in NYC and one of your touring bandmates insists on finding a band of pros that has to be paid. I guess then you can allocate the expense of paying a group of musicians in money and not beer. But why only one city or select cities? Why not all of the cities?
And I also get that you're putting it out there for your fans to decide if they want to be paid in exposure (which, hey, Mandy, "paying [someone] in exposure" is shady promoter / coffee shop owner speak for "not paying") and beer and, as you put it, hugs and high fives. You're not forcing anybody to do anything. Your fans can decide for themselves what they want to do that night: Stay home, go to the show, or play the show. It's on them what kind of experience they want to have that night.
And you're exploiting that; you know which one they'd pick.
After you take a million dollars from them, you ask them to play for free.
Now, there's nothing wrong with asking somebody to play for free. I've played for free a number of times. Sometimes to friends, sometimes for friends. But here's the thing, I've never given those people a million dollars. I'm sure I never loaned any of them more than a dollar.
You probably don't think you're doing anything that bad but consider the amount of time you've had to dedicate to defending yourself on your blog. That should tell you something: Most people - a group of people made up mostly of non-fans, true - aren't digging your monkeyshines. You say you basically can't afford thirty five grand, by your estimate, to pay for a string quartet and a brass section for the entire tour.
Mandy, baby, allow me to introduce you to your duh moment for the day if the idea hasn't already been pitched to you:
You asked for a hundred kay and pulled off a million. Stands to reason that you can pull in three hundred fifty kay by asking for thirty five. That will pay for the musicians and also pay for their...
• Hair (about US$19,000)
• Makeup (about US$36,000)
• Costumes (US$100,000, easily)
• Transportation & Gas (US$6,000)
• Lodging (US$12,000 if you slum it at a Red Roof)
• Personal Assistants (you might need to start another Kickstarter for them; I will say that I, personally, never pay more than fifteen large for a PA and that's a twelve month contract)
• Dog Walkers (you know, just in case)
• Catering (meals for eight every night, I'd say you're looking at US$67,000)
• Masseuse (keepin' 'em limber will set you back about US$85,000)
• Incidentals (no idea, so try to not break anything)
That will leave you with an extra twenty five grand that you can piss away on Coronas instead of High Lifes. Because you get to live it up only once, Mandy, may as well make it count, right? Or maybe you'll blow the money on more eyebrow ink. I'm sure the costs for that are insane.
But I know I can't talk you out of ripping off the musicians (yes, you are ripping them off) and I doubt I can talk you into finding a way to pay them, which is shitty considering you've got a tour rider and you're getting paid - by the way, is it a guarantee or a cut of the door? Well, I guess that doesn't matter after you high five somebody which is totally a viable form of compensation. So, since your mind is made up and anything I say here is an exercise in futility, all I can do is call shenanigans.
Hugs, Mandy!

13 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #13

Throbbing Gristle, D.O.A. (The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle) (Industrial, 1978)

D.O.A. was where Throbbing Gristle's music first evolved. Second Annual Report was a great statement of intent for the group (mindlessly deadening synthesizer patterns, utterly suffocating and mostly arrhythmic electronic atmosphere, vicious processed guitar noise, and Genesis P-Orridge's completely soulless, evil croak of a voice), but much as I enjoy it, it was still a fairly primitive work, mostly a compendium of fascinating and difficult excerpts of the group's experimental and largely improvised live performances. D.O.A., in contrast, is clearly constructed as more of an actual album than Second Annual Report was ever intended to be. It still compiles choice live improvisations and juxtaposes them against studio performances, but does so in a much more carefully considered manner. Tracks consisting almost solely of unsettling electronic noise (the malfunctioning opener "IBM," the choppy, pulsing instrumental "Dead on Arrival," the grinding insanity of "Walls of Sound," the awfully creepy and appropriately sick-sounding "E-Coli") push up against memorable, horrendously frightening near-songs (the devastating portrait of depressive suburban hell "Weeping" and the infamously terrifying "Hamburger Lady"), which are followed in turn by almost playful and beautiful tracks (the almost ambient "Hometime," which consists of spacey guitar and happy children's voices, and the danceable, shockingly tuneful proto-electronica of "AB/7A"). There's no pinning the record down emotionally; though it's certainly a collection of sometimes completely impenetrable and extremely noisy avant-garde material, it manages to convey a sea of different emotions and moods almost effortlessly. This ability to shift mood at will is the quality that makes D.O.A. as effective as it is, and what makes it one of Throbbing Gristle's most successful and most influential albums. At their best, this band made deeply demented, messed up and fiercely intelligent music, and D.O.A. deserves to be as influential as it has become. They were so effective at scaring people that they included a recording of death threats left on their answering machine on this album. Let's see pretty much any band that considers themselves transgressive try and top that.

12 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #12

Songs: Ohia, Ghost Tropic (Secretly Canadian, 2000)

I don't know what mental state Jason Molina was in when he recorded this album, but it sure sounds like he was depressed. Ghost Tropic is one of those albums that's clearly meant to be taken as a whole, and judged on songs alone or as an entire record, it's almost abnormally bleak. From Molina's tremorous, disconsolate singing, to the obscure and doom-laden lyrics, to the slower-than-molasses pace of every song, the atmosphere is oddly humid and haunted, which makes the title immensely appropriate. The album actually sounds like what the title evokes. Listening to this album is like watching terrible things happening at night in a rainforest from behind an impenetrable screen.

Picking out individual songs to describe is almost meaningless on an album this self-contained. Everything here works toward achieving a cumulative effect on the listener. Sequencing is extremely important here: though there's nothing here that's "catchy" in almost any sense, the songs go in an order that they were obviously meant to go in. You can't do any random shuffling with this record, because the atmosphere will be completely destroyed. And the atmosphere on this record is possibly the most important thing about it. I'm not saying that the songs aren't musically worthy: they're all great songs. But they all sound the same as each other to a degree, and they're all clearly in the service of the whole. There are eight songs here. Two are bizarre instrumentals dominated by lo-fi tapes of ambient forest noise: birds screeching, bats chirping, all that, sparsely furnished with lashings of melody from almost randomly selected instruments: lap-steel, vibraphone, piano, strangely ringing percussion that sounds like someone tapping on the metal hull of a boat, etc. The other six songs consist of four five-minute dirges and two ten-plus minute dirges, and the two ten-plus minute dirges are on Side B. If you're not gripped by the atmosphere by the time the first song ends, you probably won't like the album too much.

Instrumentally, this album is fairly unique. There are often two guitars on many of the songs. One, presumably the one Molina's playing, is a clean electric guitar that almost sounds like it's been strung with rubber bands run through an amp with the vibrato setting permanently on. The other is a very adept acoustic guitar (through some kind of wizardly playing, this other guy manages to consistently bend acoustic guitar harmonics and strings on the first song like he's got a whammy bar attached - it's a really cool and unsettling effect). Strange and brilliantly unsettling keyboard work pops up increasingly as the album goes on, especially on the two long songs. "Not Just a Ghost's Heart" features a vibrating, droning synthesizer that sets the rhythmic pattern for the entire 12-minute song, along with grim piano and bizarre, nearly atonal organ way off in the background, while "Incantation" features what sounds like an actual Mellotron. But the most noteworthy sonic feature of the album is the odd, loping, seemingly non-Western percussion that's everywhere here. I think the only time a standard trap set is used is on "The Ocean's Nerves," which ends the first side. There is at least a bass drum used on most tracks, but just as often you'll hear percussion which I personally have a very hard time identifying. I'm not sure if it was easily available percussion merely recorded in a weird way, or if it was actually strange percussion that the people recording the album had access to, but either way it sounds quite individual. I don't honestly know if I've ever heard another album with a percussion sound like this.

Every song here is good. But the last 11-minute stare-down of a finale, "Incantation," is one scary way to end the album. The Mellotron work here is extraordinarily foreboding and unnatural, evoking nothing so much as Popol Vuh's soundtrack work for Herzog's '70's films. Coupled with Molina's lonely wail, his repetitive minor-key guitar, the deeply frightening, apocalyptic lyrics and the spare, funereal percussion, it all adds up to a creepy, terribly effective song that's hard to forget.

Ghost Tropic has limited usage, to be honest. It's extremely quiet, subdued, and so slow that it's nearly going backwards. The only way you can really listen to it is at night in a room alone, with the lights turned off. But it is one hell of a nightmarish trip, and it must be listened to on its own terms.
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