“Trompe Le Monde” by the Pixies – Review

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Honestly, I did not like this one much at first. The thin sound and crushing treble (especially in the first half) were really off-putting, and I could remember little to nothing of the songs themselves except for that stupid “Jefrey with one f” phrase from “(I Believe In) Space” (which I could never identify, of course). I put it away after one or two absorptions.

Of course, in the spirit of Trout Mask Replica I willed myself to try it again. And again. And somehow a riff or two finally landed and I began to enjoy “Alec Eiffel” and “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”, listening more and more to the album in consequence, and finally embracing the thing and loving most every song it contained.

As Mark Prindle has pointed out, the CD really doesn’t have any bad tracks; aside from the Jesus and Mary Chain cover (I really dislike that major-key pop-punk stuff anyway) and “The Navajo Know”, it also lacks middling ones too. All these songs are memorable and tuneful, chief among them “Letter to Memphis”, and they exude a variety of moods and colors. While I’m not a big fan of their first three albums, Trompe Le Monde is certainly a very good record, and I do not hesitate to recommend it to you.

P.S. It’s also Edgar “Hot Fuzz” Wright’s favorite Pixies album.

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“Heartwork” by Carcass – Review

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Heartwork is superb in almost every respect: the band hammers out brutally speedy, complex rhythms in a fashion that would confound a Celtic Frost or a Slayer, the production is dry and emphasizes the massive virtuosity of the guitarists and drummer, and most of the compositions (it’s hard to call them “songs”) range from enjoyable to transcendent. Certainly there are some forgettable go-nowhere tracks (“Doctrinal Expletives” and “This Mortal Coil” offend the most) but that’s honestly a constant throughout metal’s history, a truism as old as the throwaways of Black Sabbath and King Crimson. Only a puritanical scrooge (or Bob Christgau) could find nothing of redeeming value here.

The best songs are so great, in fact, that they basically carry the album. Some are fascinatingly ugly, like “Carnal Forge”, or at least very interesting like “Arbeit Macht Fleisch” and “Buried Dreams”; “Blind Bleeding the Blind”, “Rot N’ Roll” and “No Love Lost” are pretty dang great; and we cannot forget The Holy Trinity. “Death Certificate”, “Heartwork” and “This Is Your Life” absolutely MAKE this recording — without these three tracks Heartwork is a slightly-above-average death metal album, a trifle with a couple of interesting riffs. The first pounds magnificently with a few slow sections; the second is the summative statement of the entire album, with its beautiful themes and flawless structure. And the last, one of the few pieces on the album that could be called a melodic song, must be heard to be believed. I have no fucking idea why they left it off the first release.

(I advise purchasing the “Full Dynamic Range” edition available from the band itself on Bandcamp.com. It eschews a lot of the compression that makes other metal albums such a chore to listen to, especially for 55 minutes at a time. The bonus live tracks can be safely ignored.)

“What Moves the Heart” by the Santos Wussies – Review

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Two samplers titled Dude, Where’s My Flannel? and Corporate Rock Still Sucks are available for free on Bandcamp.com. They were compiled and posted by a user named “Spread the word of good newer grunge bands” and the sixty included groups span the globe and play various brands of heavy metal, hard rock and bubblegum indie rock. A few (Pretty Please, Milk Duct Tape, 24 Broken Amps, Barry and the Beachcombers) are interesting and often fun anomalies; most (Resin, Minus Touch, Inner Temple, Blue City Mutt) work competently in noble traditions, and nothing more; and several (Baby Milk, Fukked Up, Despairplane, Split Rock, Hung Bunny, This Is Confusing, Perfecto Desconocido) range from hilariously overwrought to plain garbage. Out of them all, though, one still holds my attention and rarely ceases to amaze me. That group is the Santos Wussies.

Their first album, What Moves the Heart, is a blast of scuzzy pop-punk topped by phonetically impeccable English nonsense.  This is Kurt Cobain songwriting, the kind that most people only aspire to. They toss off bizarre lines (“We’re doing stupid things/On Space Shower TV/And we’re doin’ it on TV”, “I don’t like drugs/But I do”, “You got to be the stone in my pumpkin” — what the fuck does it even MEAN?) over grungily played major-key melodies that would make the alternative kids in my hometown scream behind their lips and huddle over in a corner in a typical display of joy. There are maybe two iffy songs (“Later Later” and… well, that’s it actually) and no bad ones at all. Fuck me. If I’d ever listened to Nevermind and were in the business of making lazy comparisons I would probably say this has the potential to be the Nevermind of the twenty-teens. Or maybe the Bleach, with all its filth and buzz. (Their second album is even poppier and has a lot of modern-rock compression, which is a bit of a let-down after this vital bouncing glorious debut.)

I hope to God that they haven’t broken up permanently, if only so I can fantasize about bringing them on tour when my band gets huge. (Just you wait…) These two dudes, who go by Nico and Agus Wussy, have revitalized my faith in the freshness of KISS-principled punk rock (the acronym, not the band), in the effectiveness of four chords, a killer tune and a killerer beat. Basically they play punk rock like they fucking invented it — the crunch is theirs, the attitude is theirs, the unadulterated fun of the music is entirely the Wussies’ own creation. I never again thought, after enduring rock radio and “independent” “rock” for eighteen years, that I would rediscover that love I still hold for deceptively brainless pop that beats its head against walls a la The First Four Years or Pink Flag or Generic Flipper, rock which got away with being simple by virtue of its innovation and joy. And yet in the work of two goofy Argentinians, a self-professed “dino-killing boy band”, I feel alive once more and see the world anew. Maybe there’s some hope for the music of the future after all, in places (Eastern Europe, South America, Africa) where rock and roll has not run its course as in the Anglophone world. Or perhaps (this is my favorite theory) the relatively new groups which catch my attention are phenomenal in themselves, regardless of where they come from. In that case anybody with a knack for music and a strong commitment to expression and practice could “bring his personality to bear” on quality music, as Louis Hardin once wrote, ensuring that rock and roll and its hijos mutantes carry music’s essential genes for a long time to come. Thank you, Santos Wussies — you have restored my faith in the possibilities, if not the actualities, of contemporary music.

We Are the Luckiest Drug Addicts Alive

As a dude somewhat dedicated to finding out what makes life worth living, I’ve learned to distinguish between types of pleasure. There are nuances to each, but I can separate most positive sensations/states of mind into two categories of highs and fulfillments. Highs are the direct dopamine stimulations that come from easy conquests like masturbation, drug use, political news and most forms of blue light (TV, computer screens, cell phones, etc.); these are satisfying momentarily but don’t contribute to one’s consummate joy or contentment in life. Fulfillments are brilliant slow burns in the diaphragm, rushes of blood to the brain and urges to fling one’s arms around while dancing and singing, which result from experiences like breathing country air, jamming with friends, sex and love, meeting a personal hero, making one of those friends with whom dialogues can last hours, saving a life, helping strangers or finishing a beloved project. These are the pleasures for which humans have always lived, and have been constantly sidetracked by damnable realities and nervous apathy. They are what advertisers want us to forget about and replace with a drive to consume rendered ever more gross by the numbers of weak-minded people who take them at their word. Stick to your friends and the people you love, and if you don’t have any of those find some for chrissakes.

Which brings me to analyze the pleasure I get from the most obsessive thing in my life. What is the nature of my love of music? It’s difficult to determine its effect on me — sometimes, especially when I’m alone and haven’t done much all day, the music I listen to exhausts me, and I think it must be a hopeless high, a cheap substitute for the real joys in life which I enumerated above. I shut off the stereo and sink into bed like a ship falling to the ocean floor. Other times, when I have intent in my stride and a goal in mind, I feel as though my music is truly important. These varying experiences lead me to believe that music, at least in my life, is more than anything a supplement to the wonderful things I have seen and done. It soundtracks my actions and the scenes from my life; I recall driving south on US-101 to the propulsive beat of Miles Davis’ “Right Off”, or clearing brush in a beautiful part of Aromas while smiling along to songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Exile on Main Street. The best times I have with music are when I do something alongside it.

Thus I suspect that music lies somewhere between the two categories. It has the power to enhance one’s awareness and strengthen memories of good times, and the stuff itself is pretty intoxicating on its own. However, it’s not very permanently remedial for the ills of the soul, and shouldn’t be treated as a form of fulfillment in itself (unless you’re creating your own, or playing with friends). Really, we music lovers are lucky that the rest of society has also been hooked so easily on our drug of choice — otherwise we would be regarded as freaks and degenerates, alcoholics of a sort, guilelessly overindulgent where others are moderate to teetotalling consumers. We spend inordinate amounts of time and money on music; we obsess over its quality, revel in nuances, and push it relentlessly on our friends and relatives. Music addiction has more in common with druggery than we’d all like to think. And we must always remember that it is important, very important, but not so crucial as we might think.

The Melvins In Concert

On Monday night the tenth of July I headed with my dad and a friend to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, where the Melvins — a trio made up of Roger “King Buzzo” Osborne, Steven Shane MacDonald, and Dale Crover — were scheduled to play. At the time I anticipated the show, but something else had been nagging at me. My love for the Melvins, which peaked between the first semesters of my junior and senior years in high school, was receding a bit, as their albums (Ozma, Lysol, Gluey Porch Treatments, Pigs of the Roman Empire, Bullhead, Stoner Witch, etc.) got less and less rotation; I don’t know why. I simply felt less attracted to the music. And so, on my way to the show, I wondered whether I was going to like it, whether the band would play the good old stuff which Buzz had dismissed in interviews or concentrate on what I thought was their lesser new material, and whether my guests would like it.

I was not disappointed. After a middling group called Spotlights (generic heavy psychedelic metal) and an intermission during which a Brit next to me pointed out Jello Biafra in the crowd, the Melvins came out and proceeded to noise it up for a minute before easing into Flipper’s “Sacrifice”, a(n almost) nostalgic move which delighted and surprised me. The first part of their set, in fact, featured the cream of their early-Nineties output, with songs from Ozma, Lysol, Bullhead and Stoner Witch; this was not one of the hilariously confrontational shows that made them notorious, like their Warfield opening slot for Rush where they played each consecutive song slower than the last, or the Seattle concert where they played a single note (maybe a version of “Hung Bunny”?) for over an hour. Perhaps they had decided to just give the crowds what they want, having recognized the precarious financial situation that abandoning their tiny fanbase could put them in, but I like to think they were reciprocating the crowd’s enthusiasm and attempting to put on a fun show in response.

They played a number of songs I didn’t recognize, which is hardly surprising given that I only own about eight of their thirty-plus albums; most were in the perfectly decent vein of A Senile Animal, with harmonies and pentatonic riffs; I think I like them better now that I’ve seen the show. (The “Death” disc of their recent album, A Walk with Love and Death, refines this approach and really deserves a listen.) By subsequently listening to their new album I managed to identify a couple of its tunes, likely “Sober-delic” and “Euthanasia”.

Three performances caught my particular attention. The first was “The Bit”, which appeared about halfway through the concert and caused me to sway back and forth with my eyes rolling back in my head. (Now THAT was a groove.) The second was “Euthanasia”, which managed to harken back to the cliches of GPT while still being a tuneful rock song — I thoroughly recommend that new album, guys. And the third was a fantastic rendition of “Hung Bunny” that I didn’t even recognize for the first several minutes, so different was it from the Lysol version. That night, instead of including the lengthy guitar-drone passages, the band bashed their instruments between the emphasized notes and made a whole lot of noise until the thudding part, when I finally realized the song’s identity and rocked back and forth with a scrunched blues face until the opening bars of “Roman Bird Dog”, which was similarly glorious.

The show ended after that medley and the spectators poured out into the street. We hailed a ride back to the BART station and went home awed by the performance we had just witnessed. Even my dad loved it.

“Hex; or, Printing In the Infernal Method” by Earth – Review

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Advice: Get the vinyl version, if you like it. It’s more expensive, and rather hard to find outside the Internet, but the other versions are rather compressed and can make protracted listening a bit of a chore. Plus, there’s a fifteen-minute ambient bonus track that may not have much of a tune, but is good for homework and study. Read on for details.

I have a strange relationship with Earth. I really don’t listen to their material often, and when I do it’s rarely outside a couple of the really good albums. Even so I haven’t listened to Pentastar or Earth 2 or Bees or Primitive and Deadly or Hibernaculum in months or years, though I probably should (if only to reevaluate them), yet I google the band’s name regularly in anticipation of forthcoming albums or tour dates on the West Coast. Earth’s ability to hold my interest, in other words, is in direct inverse proportion to that of their music.

In fact, the only album of theirs I’ve enjoyed recently on a sort of rotational basis is Hex; or, Printing In the Infernal Method, a soundtrackish masterpiece with a Fluxus chamber-music title more appropriate to LaMonte “The Tortoise Recalling The Drone of The Holy Numbers as They Were Revealed in The Dreams of The Whirlwind and The Obsidian Gong and Illuminated by The Sawmill” Young than the country-rock combo that Earth has transformed into. I haven’t played a set this often and for such pleasure since Jack Johnson or Gluey Porch Treatments, and I have pretty much worn those out by now. (Surely the same is gonna happen to Hex, but such is life.) The music herein is inspiring as hell, a windswept droning impressionistic take on spaghetti Western music that has been described in so many other publications, and is so much better in the auditory flesh, that no further adjectives will be bandied about. Suffice to say that this is an album of constantly developing sorta-riffs in the mold of Earth 2 — after hearing it a few dozen times you realize that unlike Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, Hex doesn’t drive most of its motifs into the ground, even if it is repetitive. This, I think, is meant to put the listener in a stupor, a sort of hypnosis by bludgeoning, so that they (the archetypal listener) can be forced to sit and listen through the initial monotony to find the record’s true purpose: conjuring.

No, it’s not an album that intends to be catchy, though many of these riffs will stick in your head; this is actual fucking raga rock, music that has learned at least a little of the lesson present in nauseatingly boring Indian classical crap. It uses the trebly bite of the electric guitar, the most ubiquitous instrument in Anglophone (and probably the world’s) popular music, to narrate in a way that us dum Americans will pay attention to, in a way that the Pandit Pran Naths and other sophisticated non-Western experimentalists probably will not be able to in anyone’s lifetime. It privileges impressions, classical-style, over memorable riffs to feed us back images of the American West that really ought to be used up by now, but still are fascinating.

That leads to another interesting observation: Hex also uses the vocabulary of country music, with its steel guitars, gentle swing and G mixolydian fixation, to paint that “Western” Picture, but it obviously lacks the gloss that mainstream country has for far too long forced on its leading performers. Life is ruff; that’s the big unit-shifting country cliche (one among many). Yet the music of Hex never coats that misfortune, which in Dylan Carlson’s literature of choice gets really brutal, in the Nashville syrup of yesteryear. For that you have to give Earth credit: for hearing the fundamental and bleak country sadness that producers usually wrapped in strings and steel and brushed-ass wimpy fucking drums. Give thanks for their spare and resolute gallows contraption of raga-country music; with God’s blessing that descriptor will not become a tired genre heading, and we can all appreciate Earth’s best album on long drives through Real America as we look out the window and see how impassive and inhospitable the world is, and what it does to human souls in its grip. The individual price of freedom is the non-dependence it implies, folks. And as long as we live in a world where people retreat so radically either from or towards such a condition, we have to understand the allure of total liberty, our own country’s big unit-shifting cliche. Not that an album is gonna help much with that, but it does an excellent job portraying the kind of desolation that comes with leaving humanity behind cowboy-style and striking out on one’s own. Give it a spin and you may see what I mean.

Oh, and my favorite track is “Tethered to the Polestar.” Beautiful song. I played a version on TV once.

The Groove

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have found my groove.

This morning I got up and drove to the house of an old man who attends my church. I cut his juniper bushes from the garden path, pulled a dead bush from the ground and uprooted some white flowers that had been causing him allergies. For this he paid me twenty dollars and sent me home. On the way back I ate a burrito and made plans to jam with friend Hayden later in the evening.

When I got home I folded some clothes and put away dishes with my mom and then I walked upstairs, lay down on the futon and proceeded to read Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw as my newly acquired Big Fun CD played on the stereo. Seventy-three minutes passed and when I got up I realized that I had not felt this good in weeks.

Here I am, overpaid lawn beautifier extraordinaire, with my under-scheduled hours and unhealthily large music collection (which has expanded in proportion to my graduation checks), having only changed one aspect of my daily activities, and I feel brilliant for once in this godforsaken summer, this penal colony of a season during which I cannot quite yet act like an adult yet still will be charged as one if I fuck around too much. My lethargic friends haven’t proposed to do a damn thing all summer, with the notable exception of Chris P.’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor, and even that’s an obligatory ceremony. I have wallowed in the dumps for some time, and it shows in my joyless and increasingly unimaginative music reviews. The other week I caught myself repeating the closing phrase from my review of The Shape of Jazz to Come at the end of Agharta, something about hoping that my work would turn out as awesome as Miles Davis’s, and I realized exactly how deeply my creative powers slumbered. Already this kind of article, which now approximates 330 words, would have taken me a half-hour to bang out if I were still in the doldrums, if I hadn’t taken that crucial break this afternoon and had such an excellently paced day already.

First things first: honest work. What I did this morning is the kind of stuff that is often (especially by its practitioners and their intimates/friends) labeled “honest work”, labor for which the laborer sees payment in proportion to effort or hours spent, and in which no one gets fucked over. No ethical lawyerisms entangle the handiworker’s mind as he makes his dough — he builds or he tears down, and gets paid for it by a grateful boss. That quality of work, combined with the physical exertion and subsequent endorphin release, put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.*

However, this was not the only thing that contributed to my general demeanor. I have done people’s gardening on other days at the same hour and the only time I approached this kind of geniality was when I worked in the open air of the countryside drive-thru village of Aromas, a beautiful pastoral place, and even that didn’t last when I went to Salinas and back home afterwards. I became a slug. The second ingredient was my reward — for having gotten up and done such work, I went back to my house and gave myself that present of reading time. FBI Agent Dale Cooper always said “every day, give yourself a present.”

The third contributing factor, of course, was the music itself — ambient stuff, what Christgau called “not necessarily music to fill the mind — just the room”. If you’re looking to have a similar experience, try Earth (Hibernaculum, the Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, Earth 2), Brian Eno (Another Green World, Discreet Music) or Miles Davis’  1967-1975 product, primarily the albums In a Silent Way, Get Up With It and Big Fun. (I like other recordings from this period [Jack Johnson, Agharta] more, but these ones are much more ambient and thought-provoking — they don’t rock nearly as much, and can also be enjoyed when your primary activities are finished.) You may not be as inclined towards musical adventures as I am, so I recommend you find your happy spot. I know I have.

So there — if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, try finding a job or something that somebody will pay you to do, do it when you feel most productive (if you can — I realize that most people are on a shoestring budget anyhow and can’t really pick and choose work that makes them “happy” in our godforsaken he-who-does-not-work-does-not-eat capitalist’s playground of a country, where ever more people are realizing exactly how fragile is the hubris resulting from pay and position, especially when they take the place of character), but if you can, try to schedule what you have to do for your preferred working time and enjoy yourself afterwards. If we human critters were all judged by one standard the world would be full of losers; thus the diversity of interests and aptitudes that characterize our species. Go kickboxing, maybe, or ride your bike, or jam with friends, or watch baseball with your kids, or listen to your record collection, or make a quilt, or pray, or make fun of a movie with your friends. Preferences vary. Anyway, I may be wrong about all this, so I give my advice in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s cheeky tips for finding true love. Don’t take my word for it — try different grooves. You might hit upon one you enjoy eventually. What do I know about you, you damned individual?

 

*Of course, I am also what sleepologists call a “lark” or “morning person”, and I enjoy doing things before the sun’s zenith rather than afterwards. Jamming, yardwork, reading, listening, homework — it all just comes more easily to me in the morning. People who boot up later in the day have historically been called lazy and gotten the shaft from Calvinist ninnies like me, but I have science to thank for my understanding of how people sleep and can more fairly judge the activities of late sleepers, who are probably insidiously excluded from a lot of daytime work on account of their biology and get their “sloth” reinforced by the nine-to-five that us virtuous wakeners follow. Maybe, if you’re a later riser (or “owl” in the parlance) you can get more done in a later period. Do what gets results. My managerial clientele will love that phrase.