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.
 
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