Tag Archives: Rock

Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Slanted and Enchanted

PavementSlanted and Enchanted Matador OLE 038-2 (1992)


Pavement’s full-length debut album Slanted and Enchanted has remained a critical favorite decades on, sort of the archetype for the kind of indie rock it represented. It reveled in a “lo-fi” aesthetic with tons of slacker charm. Read most reviews of Slanted and Enchanted and you’ll probably be told one or more of the following: a list of influences (The Fall, etc.), personal details about the band members and the history of how the band was formed, and some personal anecdote about how the reviewer discovered or reacted to Pavement. You can read about those things elsewhere. I want to instead write about the cultural significance of Pavement in terms of what they represented in a larger cultural context of the time.

The 1890s were called the “gay 90s” and the 1990s were called the “cynical 90s”. Following a decade of brutally reactionary policy from the like likes Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, cynicism in the 1990s was very much a kind of coping mechanism. In his important book(s), Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk described cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”, a kind of purer strain of opium for the masses. That is just the right description for Pavement’s music. Read interviews with the band at the time and later, as well as any of the various books about 1990s “indie rock” and you’ll find much the same set of concerns about not “selling out”, staying “independent”, and so on. And yet, stop and think about what those things mean. Its all an open acknowledgement of how shitty things are living under late capitalism. But the response is a kind of mild reformism (“economism” if you will), lessening the harsh impact and trying to stand apart from the worst excesses without really fundamentally changing anything. Their cynicism was a kind of self-preservation effort, by demonstrating an awareness of the shittiness all around, and thereby implying that they stood apart from it.  Elaborating on more or less the same concept of disavowal, Mark Fisher wrote,

“Capitalist ideology in general, . . . consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”

Stephen Malkmus‘s lyrics are sort full of non-sequiturs and almost surrealist imagery. The lyrics, delivered with cracked, non-virtuoso singing, are a big part of what makes up the band’s sound. There is a charm about them. These seem like slackers worth rooting for. On songs like “Here,” Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success / but success it never comes.” This is sort of what sociologists call “strain theory,” when there is a gap between social expectations and really existing conditions and actualities. Different songs here might represent different types of reactions to social strain: retreatism, rebellion, innovation.  The second track, “Trigger Cut / Wounded-Kite at :17,” perfectly fits one of Sloterdijk’s phrases: “coquettish melancholy”.

The music is full of noisy guitar distortion. The drums are a lot looser than on later Pavement albums, and this is album is altogether more legitimately lo-fi than later albums. Alex Chliton‘s Like Flies on Sherbert is an important precedent for Pavement’s aesthetic.

Some of the songs seem like parodies of grunge era rock music. This is where the “enlightened false consciousness” angle gets a bit specific. Pavement seems to be parodying the “false consciousness” of others. But doing so doesn’t escape this false consciousness, and that was precisely Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynicism — it still retains a connection to that which it purports to reject, and what it does retain, subtly and unspoken, is the same lust for power and prestige, just through different techniques and strategies. Put another way, a parody of false consciousness merely steps away from the most extreme false consciousness while remaining within it, which is quite different than turning from the wrong path to the right path. If we look back to the song “Here,” it certainly contains a critique of the so-called “myth of meritocracy” of the neoliberal era, but it also displays a casual acceptance of it as well. There is a reference to joining in prayer (religion being the original “opium of the masses”), and to waiting, as if someone else will swoop in and change things.

On this debut, Pavement was mostly channeling musical pop culture of the present and past.  They had certainly studied up on everything good about 1980s “college” rock.  But they were putting their own stamp on it all.  That was evident with the album cover — a trashed re-purposing of an old album cover.  Later on, Malkmus’ lyrics got a bit sharper.  By the time of Brighten the Corners, he was witheringly good at capturing the existential anxiety of trying to manage socially imposed expectations, personal desire, ambition, and resigned acceptance of limited possibilities.  But on this debut, the raw energy is a bigger factor.

While it is important to note the band’s cynicism, there was more to their music than just that.  Actually, one of the very reasons they remain one of the most lauded bands of their day is that they used their cynicism to open up a space to slip in some rather earnest reflections on the sorts of anxieties and coping mechanisms that middle-class, educated white people tended to rely on in a time when opportunities were starting to diminish and expectations were being (somewhat forcibly) adjusted downward.  Pavement didn’t rage and despair about it in a nihilistic way quite like, say, Nirvana.  They took a more contemplative approach.  The ironic distance and cynicism Pavement used was kind of a dead end (just like nihilistic grunge/alt rock).  It accomplished the opposite of what it intended.  But I think their music represents kind of a necessary wrong move, to enable those who followed to make the right moves — or, at least, better moves.

Well, I might as well succumb to one of the typical Pavement album review cliches, and talk about how I was introduced to them.  In the late 1990s I was involved in student radio.  A woman (Nora?) worked at the station who was middle-aged, and I think was in a graduate program at the time.  Everybody loved her because she was one of those gracious, erudite types, who treated us young college kids with respect, lending her wisdom to us but also seeking to learn from us too.  When talking to her one day she admitted to having fallen out of the loop on what was the latest “in” music, and asked what band was like the new Pavement.  I had never heard of Pavement at the time, so I had to admit I did not know.  But she encouraged me to find out.  Though I made only a cursory investigation.  I did keep hearing more about them though.  At another school, a classmate of mine who knew I wrote music reviews for the campus paper asked what I thought about Pavement.  His all-time favorite album was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Then a few years later a friend got me a ticket to see James Carter‘s Gold Sounds project perform — this was a jazz band covering Pavement tunes.  I felt somewhat bad for not sharing my friend’s deep knowledge and appreciation of the songs.  Anyway, now with a much deeper appreciation of Pavement’s music, I can say that Brighten the Corners remains my favorite of theirs, though Slanted and Enchanted is runner-up and is definitely the place to start with this important 1990s rock outfit.

Spacemen 3 – Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to

Spacemen 3Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to (Bomp! BCD 4047 1994 [1990/2000])


Originally released in 1990 on vinyl by Father Yod records, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to was re-released in 1994 on CD in an expanded form that included basically double the amount of original material, and then in 2000 another reissue tacked on a cover of The Red Crayola‘s “Transparent Radiation” (an alternate version of the band’s single).  The original 7 tracks released in 1990 were demos recorded at the home studio of Carlo Marocco in Piddington, outside Northampton, in January 1986.  They are often referred to as the “Northampton Demos.”  Those demos led to a record deal, and most of the demo songs were re-recorded for their debut album Sound of Confusion.  The tracks appended on reissues in 1994 and 2000 were recorded later, but the exact provenance of them is unclear.

These demos and outtakes end up being superior to the studio counterparts.  This belongs to be listed alongside the likes of the demos on disc one of The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities, and Bobby Womack‘s “Across 110th Street” demo, as being more classic than the formal studio recordings.  In this case, the title of the album is appropriate (a bit like the M-C-M formula).  This stuff is tripped out and psychedelic, but also crisper and more focused than much of the band’s studio output.  Frankly, this is the best that the band had to offer.  Listeners will definitely want one of the expanded reissues, because the additional tracks are very worthwhile.

Royal Trux – Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

Royal TruxCats and Dogs Drag City DC32CD (1993)


Royal Trux’s sound is notoriously, gloriously trashy, and on Cats and Dogs, for the first time, takes on classic rock influences, a few hints of psychedelia, and some overtures to the burgeoning grunge/alt rock of the day, but also retains a noisy quality held over from their early, uncompromising noise rock recordings.  In the next two decades, few would follow in their footsteps, though certain recordings by the Japanese band Boris come to mind.

The adoption of classic rock elements put Royal Trux in line with bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Spacemen 3, who, in the aftermath of the punk era, worked to return to pre-punk melodic guitar solo sensibilities (to a degree).  In a way, this re-established a kind of contercultural continuum after punk had stripped everything back to raw energy and simplicity, going back to the beginning.

Cats and Dogs is really one of the band’s best, in terms of being fairly consistent from beginning to end — and being listenable.  The songs are surprisingly varied.  There are “wall of sound” production techniques, bongos (!), and, yes, guitar solos from the reliably enigmatic Neil Michael Hagerty, who had a way of forging tenuous alliances between melodic hooks and dissonant abstractions.  He routinely attributed his approach to Ornette Coleman‘s music theory of “Harmolodics”, which in practice meant an emphasis on melodic intervals and rhythm over harmony and a fierce insistence on normative “equality” among performers and sounds.  People sometimes compare Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn to former Ornette collaborator James “Blood” Ulmer, though in many ways Hagerty is more similar to Ulmer’s “Harmolodic” guitar style.  But you probably wouldn’t guess that the band had a female lead vocalist just by hearing Jennifer Herrema‘s raspy, growled vocals.  And just because this music is trashy, that doesn’t make it unrefined.  In fact, the hidden strength of Cats and Dogs is that it takes this kind of hazy, druggy, contrarian “townie” music very seriously — even though elitists would not — and these recordings are quite meticulously constructed.  Partly that is due to their expansive view of rhythm, and how it could be used the flexibly hold together a lot of disparate influences — at times the precedents from Captain Beefheart are striking (“Skywood Greenback Mantra”).

Noel Gardner wrote in a review, “As much as Royal Trux are a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an oily rag, they are a totemic example of greatness in the American rock underground.”  In a way, as much as I might agree with his ultimate conclusion, this is a look at the band from the top down.  From the bottom up, Royal Trux sort of reveled in lower class status, much like San Francisco’s Flipper and the Washington DC hardcore punk scene — of which Royal Trux were quite direct descendants.  To the extent that the band remained “a beacon of inspiration in a desolate cultural landscape” it was partly by carrying on, well after Cats and Dogs, when most of the micro-communities of like-minded musicians, fans and critics dissolved away.

Scott Walker – Tilt

Tilt

Scott WalkerTilt Fontana 526 859-2 (1995)


Scott Walker’s later career has been enigmatic, to say the least.  He got his start singing light pop, and ended up in one of the first successful UK “boy band” rock acts, The Walker Brothers.  But friction over Scott’s obviously superior vocal abilities led to the band splitting up after just a few years.  His solo career burned brightly at first, but his finest work just didn’t meet with enough commercial success, and he drifted into country-pop terrain for a time, then reunited with The Walker Brothers.  Something unusual happened on the group’s post-reunion Nite Flights album, though.  Walker unveiled new, dark, menacing and genre-defying compositions like “The Electrician” and “Fat Mama Kick.”  He released one solo album, Climate of Hunter, in the early 1980s, but, despite an aborted effort with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, nothing further that decade.  By the early 1990s, he had started writing numerous new songs for a new album project finally released in 1995, Tilt.  Commenting on this paucity of output, he said, “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture.”

While some of Walker’s earlier works hint at the general contours of Tilt, the album is unique in a way few albums are.  Walker takes pop/rock song structures, strips away some of the most typical features of “rock” music, like a syncopated beat, then adds in industrial noises, obscure orchestration and quasi-operatic singing.  This was partly about taking elements of “high” and “low” culture that don’t typically appear together, and coming up with a hybrid that finds its feet not in fully synthesizing the disparate elements, but holding them in a kind of part synthesis and part oppositional juxtaposition.  This naturally leans toward the counterculture, in that pure “highbrow” arts admit nothing from outside their exclusive remit, save for the occasional “exoticism” or a tactical renormalization of an outside threat.  There are some musical precedents for this kind of approach in the most general sense, namely Nico‘s striking The Marble Index, which took gothic Euro-classical music and merged it with urban folk.  But Walker’s precise musical coordinates are different, and lean on obscure yet decidedly non-mainstream politics — they are overt, yet oblique enough to avoid easy identification with precise political currents.  He also developed a penchant for making his listeners stop and ask, “What?” are least once or twice per album.

If there is any great, lasting achievement here, it is that Walker reconfigures the relationship between singing and musical accompaniment in nominally pop/rock music.  The lyrics are non-linear, often cycling and vamping on brief phrases and sounds that mutate slowly, and they convey almost cinematic scenes, the contours of which are only hinted at.  His goal, he stated in an interview is for his singing to be “not too emotional and not too deadpan.”  The sonic accompaniment adds mood, and moves almost in loose parallel with the vocals, never really seeming like an integral part of the vocals in a harmonic or melodic sense, but linked to the lyrics to expand upon their meaning.  The result is something uncommonly dense.

The opener, “Farmer in the City: Remembering Pasolini” is dedicated to the late Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini.  The next song, “The Cockfighter,” includes bits of text lifted from the transcripts of the trials of Queen Caroline in 1820 (in English Parliament) and Nazi administrator Adolph Eichmann in 1961 (in Israel).  One was about a bill of attainder, a legislative act declaring a particularly person guilty of some crime and punishing them that took on the characteristics of a legislative “trial”, and the other an ex post facto trial, criminalizing conduct after it was conducted.  What commonalities these trials share is murky in Walker’s invocation, though both were constitutionally banned in the United States.  And how cockfighting relates to those trials is anyone’s guess, though it is a gruesome “sport” banned almost everywhere—it is also the title of a 1974 Monte Hellman film.  “Bolivia ’95” deals with the South American country that grew turbulent when national industries were being privatized.  Walker called the title track a “black Country music song.”  What do all these disparate things mean pulled together on one album?  What exactly.  It represents the new opacity and mystification of daily lie under modernity.  There is a part of all this a bit like Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, or Goethe‘s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, or The Renunciants, in which the very diffuseness and difficulty of piecing together meaning is itself the focus.

In an interview more than a decade after the release of Tilt, promoting his next album, Walker said, “Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of. I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope people get that. If you’re not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn’t be there.”  He cites Kafka as an influence, who used to laugh when reading his writing to friends.

“Bouncer See Bouncer…” introduces a device he would revisit on later albums (as with a bell on “Herod 2014” from Soused).  A repeating sound, not made by a conventional musical instrument, but sounding like a broken metal hinge banging together, chimes throughout the song.  It continues largely independent of everything else happening in the song.

Tilt has held up as one of Walker’s finest full-length albums.  It doesn’t make for casual listening, exactly.  But there is a mocking sarcasm beneath the dark and morbid exterior of these songs.  Tilt remains something rarely imitated, excepting perhaps Walker’s later albums.

Listen to This: A Guide to The Red Crayola/Red Krayola

Introduction

The Red Crayola on Forty-FiveThis here be a guide to the recorded music of The Red Crayola/Red Krayola — abbreviated as RC or RK.  Releases are arranged chronologically by recording date (not release date), broken up into rough “eras”.  The groupings correspond to major shifts in the geographic location of the band.  A legend is provided, as are recording credits, where available.

A Brief History

The Red Crayola (sometimes spelled “The Red Krayola”) are an exceptionally long-lived rock band.  Their origins were in the psychedelic mid-/late-1960s, formed in Texas by university students engaged with the burgeoning countercultural movement.  The band broke up and reformed, and then effectively dissolved by the end of the 1960s.  But Mayo Thompson, who worked in the visual arts (he was an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg) and also dabbled with a solo career, resurrected the band name in the mid-1970s.  For about fifty years Thompson continued the band in various incarnations across different continents.  In the later 70s and through all of the 80s, the band was based out of Europe, then returned to the United states permanently in the early 90s.  The always band fit into the musical “underground”, and was never about commercial success.  Mayo Thompson endorsed one critic’s description of the band’s music as “not practical”.  Actually, the band’s political outlook became explicitly leftist/communist.  But they tended to rely on wacky, dadaist humor and “performance art” techniques, eschewing virtuoso performance.  The band frequently emphasized equal sharing of credit, regardless of contributions, so many releases intentionally do not credit individual songwriters, or even which musicians appear on which songs playing which instruments (a practice that ended only with Introduction in 2006).  This was part of an over-arching inclusionist sensibility.


Continue reading Listen to This: A Guide to The Red Crayola/Red Krayola

TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

TV on the RadioDesperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes Touch and Go tg254cd (2004)


A good album, though the presence of some filler (“King Eternal”, “Ambulance” and “Don’t Love You”) and the fact that “Staring at the Sun” isn’t a new song keep it from being a great one.  Still, if you cherry pick the best TV on the Radio songs from various releases up through at least  Dear Science you end up with some of the most interesting rock music of the day.

Turbonegro – Scandinavian Leather

Scandinavian Leather

TurbonegroScandinavian Leather Burning Heart BHR 169 (2003)


A bit more uneven than previous releases, but with some great highlights like “D.I.B (Drenched In Blood)” and “Wipe It ‘Till It Bleeds.”  Scandinavian Leather has more of a hair metal sound, with Euroboy‘s nice guitar work being quite pronounced.  You’ll probably like these guys if you can appreciate their sense of irony in explicitly bringing out the cheeseball and gay elements ever-present on or just under the surface of 1980s metal.

Mikal Cronin – MCII

MCII

Mikal CroninMCII Merge MRG475 (2013)


Take doo-wop and orchestrally inflected glam rock of the early 1970s (Wizzard, T. Rex et al.), combine with lyrical sensibilities resembling the mellower power pop of Alex Chilton and Big Star, and add just a hint of The Beach Boys influence, and you’ll have something very much like Mikal Cronin’s MCII.  It’s an album that welcomes the kind of grand, up-beat yet hesitant melodicism that permeated the aforementioned groups in the early 1970s.  Yet it updates things with an affinity for noisier guitar, which clearly places this after the punk explosion.  In all, its a wonderfully heady brew of positive thinking and soul searching.  (And there is none of that annoyingly common whiny, “twee” singing to be found here either!).

Lou Reed – Street Hassle

Street Hassle

Lou ReedStreet Hassle Arista AB-4169 (1978)


Perhaps everyone is familiar with the saying, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”  Well, along those same lines, Lou Reed’s Street Hassle might be seen as an attempt to make an album that succeeds by going about everything in the wrong way.  The album is an amalgam of live and studio recordings.  Reed and his band quote old songs, they use a muddy-sounding (and soon obsolete) recording technology, and seem to be against audience expectations.  Reed’s lyrics are also dumb, guttural, defiant, and contrarian. Far from being a liability, this is why the album works!  In fact, it might even be possible to say that songs like “Dirt” helped lay the foundation for the sludge rock of the 1980s — especially Flipper (who used a saxophone similarly on their quasi-hit “Sex Bomb.”  The first side of the album is great, with the title track being one of the very finest moments of Reed’s entire career, and the second side is fairly good too.

Jethro Tull – Aqualung

Aqualung

Jethro TullAqualung Island ILPS 9145 (1971)


Jethro Tull alternated between folk/folk-rock and prog rock.  They generally come across to these ears as at best a second-tier offering on both fronts.  For folk/folk-rock, they make me wish I was listening to The Pentangle (or Bert Jansch solo), and for prog rock I’ll take Traffic.  Frankly, though, Aqualung leans more heavily on the prog side of things and the heavier electric guitar proves effective.  The band was known for the gimmick of having a flute, but the flute and the vocals are mostly a distraction.  This is still a very adequate album.

One question that jumped out when listening to this album is whether all prog rock is inherently misogynist.  As a genre, it tends to appeal — in a painfully obvious way — to sexually frustrated men.  It seems to lack any kind of feminine qualities.