Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Random Ten

This week is going to be pretty minimalist here - the default, random 10 post. In fact, that's about all I have to say. The racist welfare queens can take care of themselves. The Red Sox can't. The weather seems to be stalled in a gray early spring blahness... April is almost done - May should be a busy time around here, with Grant and Sherman on the march, and Wonders in the Dark's Romance Countdown. So today - here are some songs, as expertly chosen by the gnomes inside my computer:

1. Pixies - Vamos
2. Saint Etienne - Goodnight Jack
3. Syd Barrett - Waving my Arms in the Air
4. Johnny Cash - Greystone Chapel
5. Beastie Boys - Egg Man
6. George Harrison - Out of the Blue [George rocks out!]
7. Brian Jonestown Massacre - No Come Down
8. Abba - Lay All Your Love on Me
9. Black Sabbath - Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots
10. Damon & Naomi - Helsinki

Start in 1988 with the Pixies - play if Joey:

And maybe some old Sabbath while we're at it:

Have a good one!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Punk, Ubu Style

Friday again, more music - and I have to follow up on last week. Actually - go backwards from last week - from Pere Ubu, to Rocket From the Tombs, mostly. A couple weeks ago, I went to see a kid I know who plays in a band - high school kids, they're a punk band, hammering away at their stuff, pretty good at what they do - though it sometimes gets very disconcerting watching them. Teenagers playing a 40 year old type of music, their parents pogoing and moshing along.... it is all very strange, given the claims of punk, then and now, to rebellion - to being a rejection of the past. All the talk back then about rejecting the worn out mainstream rock and roll - nonsense in the 70s, of course, but extremely bizarre now. It's another illustration of my theory that rock stopped in the mid-80s (say) - this bunch of kids (the first couple bands we saw) are playing their parents' music - without any anxiety about it at all. Which is fine with me - though I wish if they were going to play oldies, they'd play better oldies. I kept wishing they'd play Sonic Reducer.

Because before punk even existed, David Thomas and company pretty much summed it up and moved along, a lot of it in two songs: Sonic Reducer, Final Solution. They are very good - and very smart, the way they play their teenaged angst both for real and for a joke, and as something that's already old hat in 1974. Since it was old hat in 1974. They're so smart - their irony, their mix of wild hyperbole and solipsism (which is pretty close to the adolescent condition: hyperbole and solipsism), their distance and knowingness, playing alongside the sense that, at some level, he really means it - or meant it, when he was younger. Something like that. The way those songs embrace the fact that there is nothing new in their teenaged blustering, that it has always been thus for the Youth of Today, and that it has been pretty much exactly thus since rock and roll became the sound of Youth of Today... while at the same time, getting across the point that the reason teenagers keep repeating the same kinds of things is that this is what it feels like to be a teenager - ready to explode and being stomped down at the same time - "they all just pass me by, but I'm not just anyone..." And that became something like the point of an awful lot of punk rock, ever since - and it's all there, more self-aware than it would be again, in 1974. That self-awareness helps, too - it doesn't seem ridiculous to me for 60 year olds to play those songs - they were never a direct expression of teenaged angst - they were always about it, and always in on the joke, and written in a way you could be in on the joke when you are 50, partly because they make you remember just what it felt like to be 15. Always balanced between the real thing and making fun of it - balance of those classic rock riffs and the sense of their ridiculousness, which plays out in the straighahead parts of the songs and the ironic parts and the weird parts. They are nostalgic and mocking, modern and old; they rock out and deconstruct rock. They are fascinating.

It's interesting that Pere Ubu, especially, came up with some songs that seem a bit more direct in their angst. Heart of Darkness and My Dark Ages especially - they seem like a more adult kind of angst, with their literary and film references, their sense of restlessness and solitude, and a kind of loneliness that doesn't feel like it is going to go away any time soon. And musically, they are moving past the standard rock and roll templates - with their drones and minimalism and Ravenstine taking a bigger part. I recognized myself in those songs, far more than the others (especially when I first started listening to them) - I was never a particularly angtsy teenager in the usual sense, but I was a lonely and over analytical young adult. And shoot - there are days, you get in a certain mood, and everything I see seems so deformed - none of the faces fit a human form... you get that....

So - I wish those kids would cover RFTT. Pere Ubu if they want, but hey - they're just a punk band. Rocket is fine. Sonic Reducer is a better punk song than anything since, and not really done to death - it's in there with a couple others early punk songs - Final Solution, Suspect Device - that just never get old.

Though on the subject of RFTT and angst - the Peter Laughner songs are a bit of a different matter. Ain’t it Fun - jesus christ. That’s murder. You get contempt, self-contempt, despair, laid out like a patient on an operating table. In some ways it has distance, but it's almost the inverse of the Thomas songs: something that sounds like it's standing outside the angst, but is all of it exactly accurate. I mean - as far as I can tell that song is pretty much a straight recitation of Peter Laughner's sins. Right up to knowing you're going to die young. It has bite. (And every time I listen to it, I remember a remark someone made about the original RFTT recording - the way in the middle, Laughner takes a guitar solo - and it's completely drowned out by Cheetah, who's amp is closer to the mic.... Poor Pete - he was extraordinarily talented, and drank himself to death at 24, quite knowingly, guessing from Ain't It Fun.)

Videos - latter day Rocket from the Tombs:

Cheetah singing Ain't It Fun:

And maybe Joey Ramone playing Sonic Reducer, with Cheetah Chrome on guitar:

And finally - Living Color doing Final Solution:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fort Pillow

I've been neglecting my Civil War anniversaries - though that's going to change around the beginning of May. Winters in those days usually meant everyone went into camp and tried not to die of dysentery and pneumonia, and went back to shooting one another in the spring... And that's what happened 150 years ago - Nathan Bedford Forrest set out on a raid, and on April 12, attacked Fort Pillow, in western Tennessee, on the Mississippi river. A vigorous fight resulted - the Union troops were outnumbers badly, and in a bad position, though they were entrenched - after a few hours of fighting, Forrest demanded their surrender, they refused, and the rebels charged, broke through - and the battle turned into a massacre.

The reason it did, and the reason it became such a touch point afterwards, is that most of the men killed were U.S. Colored Troops. (Though it didn't help, probably, that the white Union troops at Ft. Pillow were Tennesseans.) It was not unique - the Confederates treated Colored Troops appallingly - sometimes murdering them in cold blood, usually selling the prisoners as slaves. The massacre brought all this into the center of attention - leading, for instance, to the breakdown of arrangements for exchange and parole of POWS. The north demanded that captured black soldiers be treated the same as any Federal POW - the south refused. So during 1864, prisoner exchanges ended, and prison camps such as Andersonville became horrific death zones. The war became exceedingly hard in 1864 - Ft. Pillow contributed to that, directly, and as part of the larger changes marked by the use of Colored Troops. It was becoming a different kind of war - talk about a war to free the slaves became less talk, and more reality - blacks fought directly for their freedom; and Northerners increasingly accepted their cause as identical to the cause of the Union.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Boy That Sounds Swell

After I posted last month's Feelies essay, I remembered something I should have said. It's something that contradicts the gist of that essay - or at least reminds me that most of what I posted I wrote in 1989-90. That image of the Feelies as caretakers of dream albums comes from The Good Earth, and their later records; it doesn't fit Crazy Rhythms so well. Now, back in 1989, I didn't have much doubt which I preferred - I remember talking to my boss about the Feelies, before I saw them play that year - he said he loved Crazy Rhythms; I said, that's a great record but I like The Good Earth more... I did - for all the reasons I wrote about last month. But that was 1989, this is 2014; you should take note of the balance of songs on my top 10 - 3 top 5, 4 top 10, the top cover, all from the first record. You might notice the title I gave the essay. You might well ask - what IS your favorite Feelies record, anyway? WOuld I still say The Good Earth? Actually - yeah, I might - but that would be mostly because it stands as a proxy for their live shows. That 1989 essay was written on the occasion of the 7th time I saw them play, and it is rooted mainly in their live performances - which transcend the differences among their albums, turning everything into something fast and sleek - integrating the edginess of the first record with the pastoral and rock of the later ones...

But really, in isolation, as a record, today, Crazy Rhythms would be my favorite. And it's not just a matter of preferring one record by a band to another - it's a matter of preferring a sound, an approach, maybe a tradition. (And this is about preferring one thing I love to another thing I love - a matter of ranking within my favorite things, not about things I like and don't like). It's something that changed in the 90s - in 1989, my tastes were defined by the base of classic rock, and the immediate, conscious influence mostly of the Velvet Underground (plus some country floating around). 10 years later - the ground had become classic rock plus the Velvets and punk plus jazz (and floating country) - but the band at the center was different. I start with Crazy Rhythms, then, because its aesthetic reflects that change in taste - and because it provides a direct tangible link, in the person of Andy/Anton Fier, to the cause of this change. By the end of the 20th century, Pere Ubu was The Band.

There's a fair amount of autobiography involved in how that happened. Like most things, I discovered Pere Ubu late - I heard them - heard OF them - back in 87, about the time they got back together to make The Tenement Year. I bought that record and liked it, without, maybe, overdoing it; at more or less the same time, I found a copy of Terminal Tower, their singles compilation, and that, I will say, hit hard. Even now, their singles are what they are known for, among non-obsessives at least - Heart of Darkness, Final Solution, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo - and they certainly convinced me. They weren't a radical departure, of course - those early songs grow pretty directly out of the Velvets and Stooges and such, which I was long since immersed in back then. And I was immersed in a lot of 80s bands that had certainly been listening to Pere Ubu for a while - Mission of Burma, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers all have their moments. (And the Pixies, though they might have gotten prominent a bit later.) So I took to Pere Ubu fast, and took to them hard - hard rock, literary allusions, Jimmy Doolittle, guitar solos - they had it all, and I was convinced. I found a copy of 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo; I went to see them play (fall '88 - the people who were supposed to go with me bailed for some reasons - work, most likely, so I went alone, and had to take a cab home - spending some $50-60 on the gig - the most money I have ever spent to see a show, I think, to this day.) I listened to them obsessively for a while, and over the years associated them very strongly with the beginning of summer - something about Street Waves makes me think of the first hot day of June... maybe I should have waited to write about them...

What I didn't do at the time is buy more records. The most flattering explanation I can come up with is that the early ones were out of print - that might even be true. I seem to remember seeing a couple of them - The Modern Dance, maybe Dub Housing - as imports or rarities, wrapped in loose plastic, priced over $20 - as a poor graduate student who wanted to buy as many records as possible, that did not seem to be a good investment. And why didn't I buy Cloudland? I don't think I knew it existed - they weren't on the radio, they didn't get talked about anywhere; and I admit, I rather thought of them as a 70s band, trying to relive the past... But what I had was a good start - and between the singles and the love record, I had most of the early stuff, most of the Modern Dance - even on those old bootlegs, I could tell that was the real thing - if I could find the record, it would probably become one of my favorites; the live record was up there. (One song I didn't have was the one about boozy sailors that made the strongest impression when I saw them live - if I'd known what it was called, or what record it was on, I would have bought that.) In any case - they were one of my favorites in the late 90s...

And then came a real disruption to my musical habits. I went to New Orleans in late 1991 - and when I came back, more or less simply decided that from now on I would listen to jazz. And I did - for half the decade - obsessively - buying everything I could (I had a job; I could buy lots of records), reading about it, etc. And then - I had worked throughout he history of jazz, arriving at last at electric Miles, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell, Sonny Sharrock, James Blood Ullmer - guitarists - and found myself drawn back into rock and roll. Specifically to Richard Thompson, since this was mostly a guitar obsession; but also - Raygun Suitcase, which came out about that time. And had about the same effect that Terminal Tower did - I listened to it obsessively... and this time, I had money, and their old records were in print - not just in print, packaged in a nice big box.... which I listened to, end to end, singles, 5 LPs, live record and fellow Cleveland bands, for the next 3-4 years.... and came to measure everything else against them.

The seeds were there in the 80s. Terminal Tower has the singles arranged in order - you can work your way into them, trace their development, trace the development of the aesthetic they represent. Call it post-punk - a style looser, more angular than punk, usually more rhythmically interesting, less consumed by its attitude. It's a style that includes Pere Ubu - Television - Joy Division - Gang of Four - Minutemen, all very dear to me; PIL, Mission of Burma, Young Marble Giants, Pylon; that first Feelies record - it leads more directly (I think) to more avant grade music - Sonic Youth and DNA (another direct link to Pere Ubu), the Butthole Surfers; or even backwards, to prog and its ilk - especially Krautrock, Captain Beefheart, Red Crayola (another direct link), Soft Machine, etc... And in Pere Ubu's singles, you can hear it coming - hear it emerging, almost like a process of stripping things away. The extra guitar player, the classic rock sound, the denser, hard rock style riffing - being dropped, bit by bit as you move from the strange noisy rock of 30 seconds Over Tokyo to the classic rock/proto-punk of Heart of Darkness and Final Solution - until they arrive, at the song that probably tipped me, more than anything, to the fact that they were different: My Dark Ages.

It's the first record they made with their classic lineup - Thomas, Herman, Krauss, Maimone, Ravenstine - and it's a song that really defined post-punk, before punk had really gotten going. Even now, it's rather shocking how bare it is - they've pared things down to something a bit beyond the basics, stripped to the bone, digging into the bone - guitar, bass, a bit of drum, and some kind of splatty synth riff, a splash of piano, all separated, with miles of space between them, with lots of empty spaces in the sound, none of it in any hurry - and Thomas coming in like a taxi dispatcher muttering into a mic... I loved Heart of Darkness, but I loved My Dark Ages almost as much, and it was something new - it was strange, it was beautiful, it was haunting and a bit scary, it evoked night in the city where the air can shine - it was great. And there was a guitar solo! (I'm a sucker for electric guitar, and for solos.) A real one, and as thrilling and radical as the song itself - those long, slow slides, the strings of single notes, the biting, acidic tone. Tom Herman’s style is remarkable - simple enough, but brilliantly controlling the tone. His solos are fantastic, absolutely ace. Punk never made much of guitar solos (though that's not fair - American punk, especially, produced a swarm of superb guitarists - Verlaine and Lloyd, Quine, D. Boon, Mould, Kurt Kirkwood), but Herman played solos, solos that didn't sound like much of anyone else - he is hugely underrated... This clip, from 1995, I think proves my point:

It's startling, even now, to notice how spare they are, and almost always have been. My Dark Ages is something of the extreme in their early days (though they certainly stripped things down even more on some of the more experimental records - Lost in Art!), but they almost always have as much space in their sound as any band. Rocket From the Tombs was not spare - two guitarists battling for space, the whole thing dense and powerful - but Pere Ubu's versions of the RFTT songs are already stripped down, cleaner, patient. They stay like that - sounds distinct (even played live) - parts related, complimentary, but not getting in the way. Instruments coming in one at a time, circling each other - maybe coming together into a neat little chorus, only to break up again, wander off, into a guitar solo, a bit of synthesizer or theremin weirdness, a found recording, or Thomas doing his thing... They were never afraid of losing the plot - partly because from the start, they were tight enough to come back to the organizing riff without missing a beat - and when they wanted to, they could swing. They could do anything, and did - abstraction, solid rock songs, pop songs, various warped forms of country, folk and such - all at once! They weren't, in any meaningful sense, a jazz band, but my own enthusiasm for jazz certainly helped me become the obsessive fan I am - it tied to their avant grade tendencies, but also to their ability to navigate the twists and turns their songs took, the skill to get back to the beat when they needed to... and it made me pay attention to things like tone, tones - Herman's slides, the sounds from Ravenstine's synths - less notes, more sounds, something jazz relies on...

And finally - I can't stop this without writing about David Thomas' lyrics. Song by song, they are good enough - but I am not sure anyone has supplied such a store of lines that echo in my head...

I don’t get around, I don’t fall in love much
Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form
Yeah, I oughta know that nothing's worth the half of half of what it used to
Mom threw me out 'til I get some pants that fit
Out in the real world, in real time, technoramic heartache!
walked around took the bus walked around took the bus
Here's to the details that so often get overlooked
If the devil comes, we’ll shoot him with a gun, if he shows his face, we'll laugh
Don’t fret now baby! Don’t be so tired
On a day such as this insist on more than the truth
(The folderol of fretful peregrination)
one day they're crawlin in the streets, afraid of a strange, free, wide open land
Marchin on the Home of the Blues
In the ghost town inside of my heart the downtown is parking lots
I want to hang around in your Greyhound terminal
One day I will be the best that you can do.
And the radio, AM radio, oh the radio will set you free

There are concrete reason for the excellence of his work - all those turns of phrase; but also the imagery - sharp and clear, and usually concrete - things, places, actions, real or imaginary, realized in clear imagery - we'll drive around and oh we'll fall in love... night in the city where the air just shines - they evoke a place you can see. The emptiness of the nighttime city streets, the loneliness of the lone driver. The settings change - the city in the early songs, the open road, usually, in the late records - always cars, though, diners and bars... All this runs along with his literary and film allusions - titles, lines (maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau), stories (30 seconds over Tokyo), situations - books and movies weave through his work along with the roads and cars and skies and rain... and who doesn't want songs about books and movies?

So finally - when push comes to shove - other than the Beatles maybe, maybe the Stones - this is it: Pere Ubu might as well be my favorite band. Maybe more than that, they are, more than anyone else in this series, mine. I like them more than anyone I know in real life; they have a pretty strong claim for being my favorite band; they are the band I identify with most. I did it literally back in my AOL days - stealing a song title for a handle (instead of a secondary villain in an atrocious juvenile book) - actually, using a couple song titles as handles, figuring it would signal the right people that they were both me - it is a credit to the people I hung out with that more than one of them made the connection. If I ever go to that desert island, and take one band's music along, it will be theirs - if I took one CD along, it would be the first CD in the Datapanik in the Year Zero box set, with the Modern Dance and the singles on it.

Songs - I am tempted to split this out: first run - post-reunion, maybe. Not a balance, but they were better during their first run - but not so much better I like to see the later stuff swamped by the early songs, which is what happens this way. Longevity counts - the fact that they have continued to produce excellent records right to the present day is no small part of my affection for them. I should list off my favorite records, while I am at it.... But - well - start with the top 10:

1. Heart of Darkness
2. Humor Me
3. My Dark Ages
4. Caligari's Mirror
5. Memphis
6. Go
7. 30 Seconds over Tokyo
8. Wine Dark Sparks
9. Final Solution
10. Beach Boys

But I am willing - 10 pre-breakup:

1. Heart of Darkness
2. Humor Me
3. My Dark Ages
4. Caligari's Mirror
5. Go
6. 30 Seconds over Tokyo
7. Final Solution
8. Street Waves
9. Misery Goats
10. Over My Head

And Post reunion:

1. Memphis
2. Wine Dark Sparks
3. Beach Boys
4. Busman's Honeymoon
5. Dark
6. Folly of Youth
7. Electricity
8. I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue
9. Kathleen
10. Rhythm King

And, finally - 5 best LPs:
1. The Modern Dance - you need to memorize this.
2. Raygun Suitcase - a very welcome return to the experimentation of their early records, which simultaneously contained some of their best songs
3. Dub Housing - things are starting to get odd, but this still kicks
4. Art of Walking - really you say? hell if I know. This is as strange a record as I have ever heard, and certainly the strangest record I have listened to end to end dozens of times... but it's fascinating, and contains 2 classic tunes...
5. The Tenement Year - a nice set of songs, with plenty of noise going with it - how much of their style can be traced to the guitarists, I don't know - but they do seem distinct - when Laughner was in the group, they sounded like the Velvets and the Stooges; Herman's records all of a version of that stripped down sound I wrote about; Mayo Thompson makes AOW and SOABM sound like Red Crayola; the Jim Jones records are built around solid indy rock songs, almost pop; the Keith Moline records verge on electronic music - it's noticeable... Anyway - there's nothing in their catalogue quite as strange sounding as Cloudland - pop songs with pop productions - and David Thomas singing? Rhapsody in Pink becomes reassuringly normal after that... But Tenement Year hasn't gotten there yet - it sounds like 30-somthing art punks, like later Wire say - and that is a very good thing.

And now, video. They can be frustrating - there is very little old stuff - nothing before Birdies, in Urgh! A Music War:

They are very well documented in the 00s - here's a complete set from 2013:

And Sonic Reducer, played in a Borders in 2006; you might see something stranger or cooler somewhere, but I doubt it:

In between you can find things - they were on Letterman, and David Sanborn's show, back in the late 80s; here they are with Sanborn and Loudon Wainwright... children point and say he is the one...

And finally - Final Solution, in 1988 - I saw this tour - they were a force of nature, with Chris Cutler and Scott Krause in the back - I was still somewhat of a neophyte as far as they went, but that was a great show:

Friday, April 04, 2014

April Songs

Finally, this week, things start to look like spring - temperature in the 50s, sun out, baseball games being played - a wonderful thing. Now to come out of hibernation myself - I owe myself a bunch of film reviews and posts; next week, a band; and - ought to revive my director of the month stuff. And next month, Wonders in the Dark launches another countdown - Romantic movies... I have plenty of things to do - I hope I can shake my current indolence. (Which isn't really indolence; it's misdirected effort... but that's another post, maybe...)

Enough of that - here are 10 songs, generated not quite at random....

1. Benny Goodman - Santa Claus Came in the Spring
2. Jolie Holland - Springtime Can Kill You
3. Burnt Sugar - Ghost Track Springtime for Chillun
4. Pentangle - Spring Time Promises
5. Pere Ubu - Silent Spring
6. Pylon - Springtime
7. Rites of Spring - Spring
8. Waterboys - Spring comes to Spiddal
9. PJ Harvey and John Parish - April
10. Thelonius Monk - April in Paris

Video? Well - rites of spring, doing spring - that sounds right:

How about PJ Harvey, singing April? Live in Paris...

And Ella Fitzgerald can take us there...