September 24, 2009
Elbow | Asleep in the Back
You may have heard of Elbow. Their fourth release, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, won the Mercury Music Prize. But if you did not explore their back catalog, shame on you. Now is the time to rectify that. Asleep in the Back, their 2001 debut, which was shortlisted for the award, is a haunting collection of dreamy ambient pop, broken up with the occasional noisy guitar blast. Songs like “Powder Blue,” which explores love between heroin addicts, and “Scattered Blacks and Whites” which is a beautiful odyssey through childhood, are far from sunny, but the power behind the music and lyrics is captivating and spellbinding. “Newborn” contains one of my favorite opening lyrics of all time. “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub.” Need I say more?
by allison levin
The Up | Killer Up!
The Up used to live with the MC5 in the White Panther Party commune in Ann Arbor, MI, but unlike their legendary housemates, The Up never gained popularity outside the Midwest. In their six-year existence they never even put out an album. But in 1995, John Sinclair released Killer Up! a compilation of all The Up’s recordings, and it turns out they rock in that Detroit-circa-1970 way, which is to say, HARD. Though neither technically deft nor as good as MC5 or the Stooges, The Up play songs like “Just Like An Aborigine” with a real proto-punk explosiveness. Perfect album to play when you need a burst of energy.
by Erin Sheehy
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September 10, 2009
Snatch and The Poontangs | Snatch and The Poontangs
For the discerning fan of both electric blues and dirty words, you can’t do much better than the 1969 release, Snatch and The Poontangs. It’s the uncredited work of expert bluesman Johnny Otis and a tight backing band including his wunderkind son Shuggie. The Poontangs’ only album has 9 filthy, funny songs, including a super-bloody, sexed-up version of the Stagger Lee story (“The Great Stack-a-Lee”) that seems to have lyrically influenced Nick Cave’s similarly X-rated 1996 version. Other highlights include “Hey Shine,” where black boxer Jack Johnson saves all the other blacks from the sinking Titanic, and “The Pissed-Off Cowboy.”
by Justin Remer
The Dovers | We’re Not Just Anybody
Sixties garage rock enthusiasts may already know The Dovers, but I’d highly recommend them to the uninitiated, especially those of you who’ve been enjoying “Walkabout,” the newish single from Atlas Sound and Noah Lennox. That bubbling organ loop you hear on “Walkabout” is sampled from The Dovers’ single “What Am I Going To Do.” But The Dovers aren’t as cheerful as the “Walkabout” sample might imply: they’re California pop alright, but rain-soaked and full of teenage melancholy. The Dovers only recorded eight singles, which used to be pretty hard to come by, but now you can find them all on We’re Not Just Anybody, their 10” compilation.
by Erin Sheehy
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August 27, 2009
Belle and Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
1996 | Matador
Can a record like If You’re Feeling Sinister, Scottish-college-project-turned-twee-wunderkinds Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 breakthrough album, ever exist again? Spring 1998, this album (reportedly made by a band that consisted of eight people but sounding like it was made by about three) fell into my lap at my college’s radio station. Interest peaked at first by the band’s name, sparking memories of the British cartoon series that was broadcast occasionally on Canadian television in my childhood home, I was immediately hooked on the band’s sound – and I was not alone.
If You’re Feeling Sinister was an enigma: bandleader Stuart Murdoch and the rest of his crew refused all interviews and rarely played concerts, sticking to their native Glasgow when they deigned to play live at all. Yet the band’s first fully-conceptualized album (their debut, 1995’s Tigermilk, is a rushed, occasionally brilliant mess that Murdoch has described as a “product of botched capitalism”) made its way onto the Matador label and, slowly but surely, into the hands of college radio jocks and other discerning audiophiles like me, based on word of mouth alone. Kind of nice, when you think about it, but also kind of depressing: less than fifteen years after Sinister’s release, the current promotional norm of internet blasts and the slow and steady decline of college radio suggest that, were Belle and Sebastian to pop onto the scene in 2009, they would quite possibly be swept under the rug before anyone got around to digging on the record.
More on Belle and Sebastian | If You’re Feeling Sinister
August 20, 2009
Eban and Charley (The Soundtrack)
2002 | Merge
Stephin Merritt, creative force behind The Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes (among others), couldn’t possibly be hurting for a creative outlet. Between 1999, with the release of The Magnetic Fields’ critical and commercial breakthrough 69 Love Songs and the 2003 release of the Pieces of April soundtrack, the songwriter has released a staggering 125 unique recordings into the atmosphere. Since 69 Love Songs challenged listeners with its sprawling, genre-hopping and disconnected narrative, everything Merritt touches has turned to gold, though his subject matter remains largely (dare I say, entirely) focused on yearning and/or broken hearts.
It is this unrelenting focus on love that makes Merritt an apt choice to compose the score for Eban and Charley. I’ve never seen the film, nor have I heard much about it besides its producers hyping Eban and Charley as the “Gay Romeo and Juliet.” Its plot synopsis on IMDB indicates that 15-year-old Charley meets and falls in love with 29 year-old Eban, to the chagrin of each of their fathers. I imagine a lot of rain (the film is set in Seaside, OR, not far from Astoria, which is where The Goonies was set), interspersed with a lot of long, pregnant pauses, dashed with a few screaming matches, and even fewer homosexual embraces. Largely ambient and instrumental, Merritt’s score is not exactly engaging, but also does not exactly encourage passive listening. Musically, Eban and Charley bears an awful lot in common with the more experimental tracks on 69 Love Songs: the arrhythmic meandering of “Experimental Music Love,” the troglodytic rhythm section on “Underwear,” and the crappy synth orchestra on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” are all echoed here. My one complaint about 69 Love Songs has always been that it’s an amazing single-disc album, presented on 3 discs; there’s just too much there to avoid letting most of it go by unnoticed. Eban and Charley, then, is 69 Love Songs in chewable form, albeit a pill skewed toward the more self-indulgent aspect of Merritt’s sound.
More on Stephin Merritt | Eban and Charley
August 13, 2009
13 Other Dimensions
1998 | My Own Planet
When I first came to New York in 2002, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I looked at music listings in the back of the Village Voice: The Giraffes were alive and well, and playing shows all over the city! I couldn’t believe my luck – a Seattle-based band that never tours, and whose activity hinges solely on the whim of Giraffes (and Presidents of the United States of America) leader Chris Ballew, playing regularly in New York?! You have to understand: I was fresh out of college, obsessed with miniscule little home-recorded records by Jeffrey Lewis (my introduction to anti-folk), Gentle Waves (Belle and Sebastian offshoot that makes Belle and Sebastian sound gargantuan by comparison) and Mark Growden (whose Downstairs Karaoke belongs on every comprehensive list of home recorded gems). New York was another world apart from Kalamazoo, MI. To be in my new home, seemingly able to celebrate these underappreciated saints whenever the desire hit me, free of the scorn of the metal kids in my old hometown? I felt like I had arrived.
Somehow, I managed to avoid the discomfort of going to one of these Giraffes shows, expecting Ballew and whoever was in tow. I’d eventually figured out what everyone else knew: that there’s a Brooklyn-based Giraffes, whose star has eclipsed that of Ballew’s side project. I’ve heard they’re awesome, loud, rowdy and abrasive, but have never been to one of their shows. So their story ends here.
13 Other Dimensions is, to the best of my knowledge, the first post-Presidents of the United States of America (who disbanded in 1998, only to reconvene about as often as the Summer Olympics since) solo project. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the packaging: the liner notes and artwork credit several stuffed animals (Giraffe, Munkey Sr., etc.) with songwriting and performance. The CD even comes with a moderately-convincing story that this is a lost bedroom pop album, made by a bunch of sentient stuffed animals in the early 70s! In fact, the only thread connecting Ballew to 13 Other Dimensions is the publishing company to which the songs are credited: “Raw Poo Music” protects both PUSA and the Giraffes.
More on The Giraffes | 13 Other Dimensions
August 6, 2009
Alone At The Microphone
Three Gut | 2001
The question: how does one qualify what constitutes a hidden gem? There seem a handful of conceivable avenues to pursue. There are those underappreciated albums that exist within a generally, or even wildly, appreciated body of work (Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong). There are those albums that, while they garner a reasonable amount of attention, don’t seem to excite as much enthusiasm as one might reasonably expect, depending, of course, on the context and current climate. (It seems to me that Bowerbirds should have achieved the status of independent-folk elite by now.) And then there are those albums that simply never really registered at all – they’re out of print, have little web presence, and have not inspired manifold amateur YouTube covers. I always refer to the Minneapolis-bred Bellwether as figureheads of this latter group. They released what seem to me the unquestionable high-points of “alternative country,” 2001’s Home Late and 2005’s Seven & Six. Both, in my opinion, are perfect albums and absolutely decimate the entire recorded output of Ryan Adams, Rhett Miller, Son Volt, pre-YHF Wilco, etc. And yet, Bellwether just didn’t register. No videos, no tab sites, nothing.
I’d long considered Canada’s Royal City to be Bellwether’s closest companions in this realm of criminal under-appreciation, in this place where incredibly gifted bands release incredibly conceived and performed albums that inspire, for whatever reason, little commercial fanfare. But now, Asthmatic Kitty is releasing a Royal City rarities collection, and I wonder: did Royal City attract hordes of silent admirers? How much did their dissolution contribute to their falling off the grid? It’s a complicated equation. There’s plenty of retired performers that inspire ceaseless speculation and conversation. Have I simply missed the peripheral murmurings, the longings for Royal City’s reformation? Because Alone At The Microphone, their 2001 sophomore effort, is certainly as idol-worship-worthy an album as I’ve found in my collection. I simply don’t know how this album isn’t considered a fundamental template and cornerstone of contemporary dirty-folk music.
More on Royal City | Alone At The Microphone
July 30, 2009
Corky’s Debt To His Father
1970 | Texas Revolution
It’s a little difficult to deconstruct something like Red Krayola founder Mayo Thompson’s lone solo album, Corky’s Debt To His Father, when one has no point of reference for the artist’s more celebrated work. I know absolutely nothing about Red Krayola, save that they have been around for decades, making avant-garde rock records and serving a niche market I will probably never even begin to understand or appreciate. But the cover looked cool, the album had been reissued by Drag City, and I couldn’t tell if the group was called “Mayo Thompson” or “Corky’s Debt To His Father,” so I was sold.
What followed upon first listen was neither the country record I’d expected, nor the noise/“out” record I’d feared. (I’ve only recently, tentatively, dipped my toe into avant-garde/noise/“out” music, and so am often still skeptical). Nope, Corky’s Debt To His Father falls specifically into that realm of bizarre, uncategorizable folk that often hews dangerously close to the abyss of self-indulgence, and almost certainly involves some sort of illness or tragedy. Three records sprang immediately to mind upon hearing Corky’s Debt To His Father: Alex Chilton’s 1970 (a long-shelved solo debut that came after the Box Tops broke up, but before Big Star formed), Skip Spence’s Oar (recorded entirely by Spence, in the very first few days after he’d been released from a six month stay in Bellevue Hospital for schizophrenia) and Stephen Jesse Bernstein’s Prison (Bernstein’s lone spoken-word album, released by Sub Pop after the troubled poet took his own life in October, 1991).
More on Mayo Thompson | Corky’s Debt To His Father
July 23, 2009
1994 | Matador
Not to get back on the whole 90s rock kick (see my slobbering praise of The Promise Ring, Butt Trumpet and The Rentals for further reference), but there exists a handful of records that are of one time period exactly. For example: Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See, the very definition of somnambulent, could have been released at any time, but could never have been a hit album with radio and MTV exposure at any other time than 1994, in the immediate wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. They Might Be Giants’ first album could only have been released in 1986, the same with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill — two albums that illustrate the wealth of possibilities in sampling other artists as a form of expression, at a time when artists could use samples without paying out the nose for the rights.
And Helium, who sound like they’re channeling all of rock’s conventions through a gray and black kaleidoscope, could only have released their debut EP, Pirate Prude, in 1994. Again, in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, as Courtney Love’s Hole was barreling up the Billboard charts and Alanis Morrissette’s angsty debut, Jagged Little Pill, was still a year away, Helium was one of a handful of smaller bands who made compelling records that threw convention out the window for the sake of art. Leader Mary Timony, who plays electric guitar that sounds like grunge played on a Danelectro, sings in a high, bored monotone reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker — though a bummed-out Moe on some heavy downers. Helium rocks, but glacially, and indifferently. Everything pounds with energy, though as if the urgency of normal rock music has been tempered down to a neutral, effortless pace. Timony, bassist Brian Dunton and drummer Shawn King Devlin, get where they’re going, all the while not caring whether you (or even they) enjoy the ride.
More on Helium | Pirate Prude