“Skin Yard” – Review

Skin Yard

In Skin Yard’s first and best album I detect traces of Red-era King Crimson, Killing Joke’s dumber “ambient” horseshit and the angry active funk of the Pop Group, all coalesced into a sleek band effort by professional musicians and pursued with the punk-band-as-bar-band ethos of Scratch Acid (a popular group in Seattle). The lyrics are conspiracy theories and Paul Kantner garbage about oppressive society and robotic nature of modern life. If Ben McMillan weren’t just that committed to the shit he says he’d be pretty funny, but as it is I can mostly ignore the words and concentrate on his fantastic fake-lounge singer voice, one of my favorites in the business. He had a good career with Skin Yard, rest his soul.

Hallowed Ground, the second Skin Yard album, comes close to being as great as the first but is unhinged by a glut of bland songs with plodding triple-meter sections (“G.O.D.,” “Throb,” “Burn”) slotted in between the terrific ones which make up the rest of the album. Fist-Sized Chunks has abysmal production and I’ve only listened to it a couple times (have not yet sampled the re-mix). And the last two albums are barely recognizable as Skin Yard because, I suspect, Jack Endino had been hooked by the 1991 release of his first solo album Angle of Attack and began hoarding all the good song ideas for his second one, Permanent Fatal Error, which was released in 2005. (And boy, are they good ideas.) 1000 Smiling Knuckles and Inside the Eye mostly just have one or two power chords per riff, and two riffs per song. It’s not really a “Skin Yard” mode of writing, and I never listen to those albums anymore.

As for Skin Yard, its great tracks are spread across both sides: “Skins In My Closet” is a bracing boogie about being true to oneself; “Reptile,” “Stuck In a Plan” and “Scratch” contain intricate interlocking parts in the style of the best progressive rock; and “Epitaph for Yesterday” and “Dear Deceased” resemble New Wave with no synths. I love “Jabberwocky,” a deceptively “free” track that invites comparison to the Beefheart of “Bellerin’ Pain” or “Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat,” and am disappointed in “The Blind Leading the Blind,” which is the reason why I mentioned stupid ambient Killing Joke horseshit above. The bonus tracks are surprisingly good — the only (partial) stinkers, once again, are slow jams “Bleed” and “The Birds.” When they get fast and funky Skin Yard are at their best, simultaneously lighter on their feet and heavier on the beat than the Minutemen. And much better songwriters, too. I urge any fan of classic rock and post-hardcore punk to bump the first Skin Yard album on YouTube, and to purchase a CD from either Discogs or Jack Endino’s website.

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The Death of Kurt Cobain – Review

by Q. Rick Delta

In which Nirvana’s downward spiral accelerates.

A number of mainstream publications, with the approval of the general public, have already given high grades to the death of Kurt Cobain. These critics claim that they do this out of respect for the sacrifices he apparently made to produce this spectacle, that he deserves some award for all the pain he suffered in bringing us his art. This is admirable but misguided. In fifty years people will look back at the work of a band like Nirvana, who had a great career up to now, and critically examine this band from a different perspective. I ask on their behalf: Yeah, but is it good entertainment?

For one thing I cannot find the slightest bit of drama in Cobain’s life story. Attempts to make narratives of the lives of characters like Kurt, or Srinavasa Ramanujan, or Jimi Hendrix have always run into the same problem – they end so early that they have absolutely no arc. We can all get invested in his early childhood, and feel pity as he navigates the cruel nowhereville of Aberdeen, Washington – bask in his success with the band in his twenties – cry at his suicide on the floor of a filthy smack house, sure, but in the end we will come away missing some sense that such a character faced down demons and briefly collapsed in the face of defeat before eventually winning and claiming his earnings with head held high. The resolution, like the worst sort of Hollywood generica, provokes cheap tears without providing closure. Cobain’s death feels senseless. It’s as though he wasn’t even attempting to send a message to his sizeable audience.

For another Nirvana ended things musically with a final insult to injury – their new album, In Utero, is a disappointing foray into Chicago-style “noise rock”, forsaking the usual tunes (their only attractive aspect) in favor of the pretense of indie-rock abrasiveness. I’m not sure if they realized how lousy it was and tried to divert our attention with their singer’s equally unsatisfying conclusion, but we can’t put anything past these people when they were clearly desperate to get back their punk cred. And anyway it still isn’t possible to fix this record’s egregious flaws with any amount of sympathy. I doubt I will listen to it again.

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have faced in writing this review. I speak not of the termination itself but of people’s collective reaction to it, because let’s face it – Nirvana fans are fucking crazy. Bob Christgau gave the death of Kurt Cobain an A, Mark Coleman at Rolling Stone gave it five stars and a glowing pseudo-philosophical review and the letters from readers of our very own magazine are pouring in, imploring me and my colleagues to join the orgy of appropriate bereavement (and cajoling us with ever-so-subtle threats of lost readership if we even think about playing the Loki to Kurt’s Balder). Everyone at the magazine agrees with me that this whole mess is a major letdown after Nirvana’s previous work, but none of them would be able to stomach all the hate mail this review is bound to incur; I took the job on because I knew I could be fair about the artistic quality of Kurt Cobain’s extinguishment, even when under pressure. And if I thought I could find a decent answer I would question these sad, angry people as to why they feel a need to live vicariously through the tragedy of a man who existed at an impenetrable emotional distance from them, why they act out the payment of homage to a dead celebrity for a brief instant and then resume their boring lives, pretending that they have anything novel or compelling to say about what he died for; I would ask why they act with such grotesque shallowness, “parachuting into other people’s tragedy” as the satirist Keith Spillett wrote. But I suspect that I would not learn a damned thing, and neither would you readers, many of whom probably decided at least a paragraph ago to join the coming boycott. And so with no friends left to lose I argue: Kurt Cobain’s death is not art. It just sucks.

The Death of Kurt Cobain: Final Score: 4/10

“Desolation Animals” by Zack Freitas – Review

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I just checked my stats and discovered that my …And Justice for All review has been visited by a browser on the island nation of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of this blog.

On a relevant note, Zack Freitas’s new album Desolation Animals is a mitigated triumph. It is a massive step forward from his previous CD, Blow Off the Steam, which I found a little wishy-washy and melodically wanting; several of its tracks were good but undercut by an inoffensive sound glutted with mid-range frequencies. I was going to review it but forgot. This time I will not.

The first important difference is in the sound of Desolation Animals. Only three people are credited — Zack, engineer Ryan Loomis and pianist Maxim Crist — because, Zack informed me, it was recorded in Loomis’s garage, and not at a professional studio like his last CD. The sound, consequently, is amateurish, harsh and trebly — think of the Minutemen’s Bean-Spill EP, but recorded to GarageBand. (This, I might note, is also the guitar tone he utilizes in concert.) The mix makes the best tracks as visceral as Blow Off the Steam was anodyne. On the whole Desolation Animals is also more rhythmically propulsive than Zack’s other work: while only a couple of previous songs (“Gold & Green”, “Hapless Again,” “Behind My Hands Are Tied”) were written with a decent beat in mind, a LOT of the new ones are propulsive rockers. Enough, at least, for me to rate the album higher. Zack even allowed Loomis to incorporate electronic elements into some songs — I will admit that when I first heard “January” I laughed out loud, and if another name were on this project I would have stopped listening. (Chris Cornell’s Scream, anyone?) Upon repetition, though, I have come to really enjoy its killer hook and superb editing, and I think it’s one of the best tracks here. The new synths shape songs like “January” and “Greyhound” without overpowering them.  And I really enjoy the songwriting — melodies a step above his past works and with harmonic twists aplenty, as he loves to use. My favorites are the first five tracks, “Greyhound,” “That’s a Woman” and “Angel In the Hospital”. Eight outta fourteen ain’t bad.

Of course, this is not a perfect album or anything approaching it. My main gripe is the preponderance of clichés in the lyrics. Several times Zack actually uses them in multiple songs (“rose by any other name” shows up in “Two to Tango” and “That’s a Woman,” “rabbit hole” metaphors appear in both “Desolation Animals” and the hook of “Greyhound,” he has used the “cover up [with] a tattoo” thing from “Reconstructed Heart Full of Dirt” on the Bitter Vanilla EP’s “Oklahoma (Come to Me)” and “you don’t have to lie” is literally the first line of “Reconstructed Heart” — AND THE TITLE OF ANOTHER SONG ON THIS ALBUM). I can’t figure out why these banalities show up so often, because if there’s a concept it makes about as much sense as The Story of Simon Simopath. Maybe he was rushed to write these songs and just threw together lyrics, but I can’t see how if it was made on a garage-recording schedule. And please understand that I enjoy “That’s a Woman” in spite of its lyrics, which reduce said gender to a cluster of gag-inducing stereotypes. Surely Zack knows better than this garbage.

I also take issue with the tracklisting. This was a problem on Blow Off the Steam, too: the kickass songs, most of them full-band efforts with great rhythms and tuff tunes, are clustered at the beginning of the CD, and the second half is of much lesser quality (with the exception of the [musically] superb “That’s a Woman” and [all-around great] “Angel In the Hospital”.) I was never a fan of his more saccharine folk songs, and the un-amplified, forgettable, nearly motionless likes of “Heather,” “Pure Imagination” (yes, the fucking Willy Wonka song) and “You Don’t Have to Lie” weigh brutally on this album. And “Americans,” “Two to Tango” and “Reconstructed Heart Full of Dirt” are only slightly better. If he could only winnow out the likes of these tracks Desolation Animals would be infinitely stronger.

In all I love to listen to the strongest songs on Zack Freitas’s new album, and I have no doubt that they will appeal to you too (yes, you) if you check them out. Don’t let the lame ones color your opinions of Desolation Animals — Zack is too good at this stuff, and too dedicated to improving his craft, to dismiss. What he needs is direction and probably a good producer. You know, like me. (He has my email if he ever wants help with that.)

Listen to it here on Bandcamp.

Splendid Gifts All: My Artistic Choices for the Final Project, Explained

Essay written for the “Great American Road Trip” seminar I took this semester. Link to the song: https://soundcloud.com/andrew-pearson-42/splendid-gifts-all

In October I attended one of my Environmental Science lecture on forest growth. The professor was going over secondary succession, or the process of how forests develop post-disturbance; she described how small plants and shrubs are the first things to grow after a fire, and how they are replaced by short-lived trees which eventually, after a number of years, give way themselves to old-growth ones like oak and sequoia. One of the biggest misconceptions, she declared, that people used to hold was that the “climax community,” in which old-growth trees are dominant in the forest, was the only preferable and ordained way that a forest could be organized. Thus, the task of foresters was to prevent any harm to the massive, “regal” trees and the ecosystems around them. What they did not realize was that such forests were the product of decades- and centuries-long cycles of disturbance and regrowth – that fires are essential to the well-being of a forest because they clear old trees out, make growing space for new ones and even serve to open the cones of certain pine trees. Without fire there is no reproduction or regrowth in such a forest.

As Thanksgiving break drew near and the final Colloquium project became more urgent, I struggled to find inspiration. The books we had read during the year were interesting and a lot of fun, but their novelty had faded and I was left with no good ideas. I had always intended to write a song or compose a soundscape based on one of the books or movies. The question was: which one, and about what?

Housekeeping I found appealing for its nihilism, which was freeing and redemptive rather than cynical, but I still thought it was too dreamy for something as concrete as a song. The Bean Trees was too distant in my memory. The Grapes of Wrath? Forget it. As I mulled the options over I stewed around my room before starting to work on other, more pressing homework. And so it went for the last couple weeks of class.

I had been so caught up in other schoolwork that I had forgotten, until last Monday night, that I had to complete Blue Highways for class by noon on Tuesday, so I picked up the printout I was given and began to read. The author was a little self-absorbed in the first few pages, and it seemed that he, William Least Heat Moon, had been in a rough patch (pending divorce, lost his job) and intended to cure his blues by travelling around the U.S.A. I was curious but wary of the self-indulgence that might follow.

Over the subsequent chapters Least Heat Moon drew me in and kept me in the book. He talked about sustaining relationships with the past, the value of home cooking over chain-restaurant food, the weird roots of words in the common parlance, the kindness and surprising personal diversity to be found among the people of Middle America – all things that I valued but had never really had the chance to bring up with anybody. I was hooked. And when he reached his conversation with the Hopi university student I knew I had found a soulmate. Two, if the student counts. He and Least Heat Moon had the most inspiring discussion in the book, touching upon philosophy and existence and duty to one’s “people”; it was from them that I got the idea for a song that would be based on Blue Highways.

Near the book’s end, on the third or fourth page from the last, I found the phrase “splendid gifts all” at the end of a paragraph and I knew I had the title for a song. I pulled out my guitar, which had been tuned down a step and a half to play another song earlier in the day, and I began to play a chord progression I had worked out weeks earlier in the key of F (which in this tuning would be in B) and sang “splendid gifts all” under my breath to a third-second-root tune, a common note progression. I continued to sing the third throughout the first three bars, switched to a fourth for…well, the fourth bar, and a fifth – oh. Yeah, there are five bars in the chorus and I managed to start the fifth one by singing a fifth interval. I could claim that I intended it to turn out that way but that would be a lie – I only applied my primitive melodic sensibility to a chord progression I had composed.

The chorus lyrics were written with the ideas in mind from Least Heat Moon’s conversation with the student, the ideas about how people are composed of the same organic chemicals that are abundant throughout the universe and how we are not unique or separate from the natural world; we came from nutrients and will eventually give them back to “decomposer” organisms. (“Pushing up daisies” is the best colloquialism for this idea.) The main import of their discussion, and of the chorus, is that there is no reason to fear these prospects or feel diminished by them – instead you, the living creature, owe an intrinsic debt to all life that came before you and will contribute to all the life that comes after through your existence. As I listened to my Environmental Science professor lecture on the cyclical nature of life that day, I had been overcome with this same realization and a deep peace filled me – everything was going to be OK, I thought. Death for one thing begets the life of another by freeing up the raw materials, and life goes on as long as old generations of a species can let go of themselves and give the young a chance to thrive, and once they have run their course they also pass the baton. (As I made the connections I was surprised to realize that I felt more at peace with the idea of being one of the old creatures and giving myself and my help to the young.) Everything is cyclical, Least Heat Moon contends, and this wisdom shows up everywhere in the book, from the Hopi symbology which he examines with the student to Black Elk’s assertion that “all things are circles.” Thus my chorus: “Splendid gifts all/Splendid gifts all/Ashes to ashes and stardust to dust/All things returneth/Death is communion with all.”

I am less proud of my verses, which simply describe Least Heat Moon’s other travel lessons and don’t have a very interesting structure (and most of which don’t rhyme). They are alright. But I was really and truly inspired by the book and the philosophy of intrinsic connection to the world and its organisms, and I hope that my song was able to communicate Least Heat Moon’s ideas as more than platitudes – they are truly inspiring, and I wish everyone could read his words on life and death at least once. So far the song I wrote doesn’t have any hits on SoundCloud, but I am not fazed – I will continue to spread the sublime lessons I have learned.

“Rape On the Installment Plan” by the Heroine Sheiks – Review

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The Heroine Sheiks’ first album uses massive compression as a tool of production, like the last Cows record — listen to the gluey soup of noise that passes for the chorus of “Okkk?”, as the guitar and bass blend into one another and the cymbals fade in and out as they compete for prominence. That kind of violent cramming, in which all the instruments clamber over one another to find some little bit of space in the mix, is a novel production technique which should really be tried more often. The “Loudness War” currently convulsing cheap garbage rock has none of this ambition, no desire to spew exciting noise. Instead it just leads to terrible pop songs that happen to be clipped into incoherence by stupid producers. Rape On the Installment Plan is great loudness rock.

The band Shannon Selberg assembled is also light years ahead of the one that plays on Out of Aferica (their third album; I haven’t heard the second one). The drummer has some notion of what constitutes forward rhythmic motion, for one thing; no flopping in place a la “You D’Etat”. The guitar and bass are also very textural, and not big on “riffs” as you would normally imagine them — think Ted Falconi, or Damaged-era Greg Ginn before he started playing the stupid “free” solos. The fact that Norm Westberg played in the Swans before (and after) the Sheiks probably helps with this. And the electronic keyboard that Selberg shares with Scott Hill is, as always, something else — it makes the alien noises throughout “Space Invader”, churns out darkly funny schlock throughout “Let’s Fight” and “You Never”, and burbles through “Wandering Mongrel”‘s ominous intro. I have a feeling Hill was responsible for most of the chords and stuff, and Selberg for the funny bleeps and bloops, but I could be wrong since many of the qualities of these keyboard basslines persist in Out of Aferica.

And, of course, the songs. Favorites here include…well, everything. There’s not a bad song on Rape on the Installment Plan, really — I do prize the second side above the first, but they are both chock-full of some of the best rock the Bush years had to offer. It’s danceable, it rocks, and most importantly it spews screaming sludge all over your stereo. I recommend you pick it up today.

“U-Men” Compilation – Review

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I’ve reached track twelve and the music, so far, is killer. I had anticipated that the U-Men would get a little bland over the course of two CD’s and thirty tracks, but that isn’t unusual. I love Dock Boggs and I still can’t stand more than a half-hour of him at a time. Nuts to double-CD’s and their gross excesses.

Compilations of standalone songs and a couple short albums are usually not much fun to listen to (Halo of Flies’ Music for Insect Minds notwithstanding), and mostly I look forward to listening to a few songs from U-Men at a time. I am very pleased to announce that Jack Endino‘s reissue production is fucking fantastic, a gleaming hundred-percent improvement over the hissy, cluttered sound of the old Solid Action comp that previously served as the definitive U-Men document. U-Men also has twice as many tracks. Getting this is really a no-brainer.

As for the band themselves, they play a brand of rock and roll that sounds less like the hardcore punk or sludgy Seattle “grunge” rock of their day and more like an amped-up take on the youth-club music of the Fifties. The Sonics are an obvious (and lazy) reference point, though the U-Men are much more innovative and listenable, and one also hears surf beats, swung rockabilly rhythms, sweet country-rock arpeggios, clumsy heavy-metal time shifts and stylistic snatches from the Birthday Party in John Bigley’s “singing” and Scratch Acid in the shiny guitar tone and weird outback-music synthesis. The U-Men are also blessed with a kickass band: Charlie Ryan is a better drummer than any in the groups these guys grew up listening to, Tom Price crafts superbly brain-damaged honky-tonk guitar parts, Jim Tillman and Tony Ransom are good at following the riff (come on, they’re bass players) and John Bigley — well, his vocal technique is immune to description. To be fully comprehended it must be heard. (And I think Tom Hazelmyer plays guitar on “Pay the Bubba” — his usual whammy bar noises are all over the outro.) Taken together they beat out thirty tracks of spikey, echo-drenched rock and roll that is all the more remarkable for how light it is on its feet, especially in the context of the alternately sluggish and mindlessly speedy music that was sprouting up around them. You can bounce off the walls to this stuff, like with the Melvins or Halo of Flies.

Standouts include “The U-Men Stomp”, “Clubs”, “Gila”, “They!”, “A Three-Year-Old Could Do That” and the deathless classic “Dig It a Hole”, their finest work and one of my favorite songs from the moment I first heard it at age fourteen. Most of the tracks are memorable, and the ones that aren’t are still fun to jump around to. Listening to the U-Men in spectacular fidelity, all knobs on 10, at 11pm on a rainy night — what more could a punk ask?

“Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Review

Skeleton Tree

Goddammit, I think I’ve fallen for the hype. I used to think it was lame and overrated, but after almost a year spent on-and-off listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Skeleton Tree album, I think I may well like it by now. It doesn’t sound anything like my other Nick Cave albums, which may be why I took so long with it, but I pretty much guarantee that if this were not Nick Cave I’d have probably written it off a long time ago. I kept coming back to it intermittently and reaching the same conclusion: sad, slow, artsy, unbearable. So, so sad. Anyway, I had better albums to listen to (the Swans’ To Be Kind arrived in the same Amazon order).

Now that I listen back to it, I realize how foolish I was to write it off. The floating electronic textures that I dismissed at the outset are the best thing about the album — they give some harmonic intrigue to “Rings of Saturn” and imbue “Magneto” and “Distant Sky” with a subtle sadness. I still think that “Girl In Amber” is too sluggish for its own good, but it’s not especially offensive in the album’s context. It’s the only slight misstep I can find after ten months.

And boy, the great songs are really great. “Jesus Alone” was the reason why I decided to buy the CD in the first place — those textures I mentioned are present in full force, buzzing and zooming with science-fiction elegance. Most of the bass frequencies throughout the album are massively compressed, resulting in the huge staticky rumble one hears on tracks 1 and 4, and something that sounds like a guitar leaning against its amplifier combines with that bass, an acoustic piano, cymbal taps and a gentle string section to get the gorgeous drone that Nick Cave recites over. I enjoy the little siren noise that pervades the track too. (I will refrain from describing Cave’s new poetry, except to say that it completely ditches the “Biblical” affect he’s pursued for pretty much his entire career in favor of a compelling, associative free verse which suits the disorienting music terrifically.) The track was released on YouTube with an accompanying video, a clip from the film that came out with the album; in it Nick sits at a piano and speak-sings into a microphone while Warren Ellis conducts the string section and watches his collaborator from inside the mixing booth. It doesn’t add too much to the song, though it gives some indication of how much Ellis contributed to the album. I never thought people gave enough credit to the other Bad Seeds — Mick Harvey was always my favorite member of the group, maybe even more so than Nick Cave himself. God, he was a great arranger.

“Magneto” is wonderful — I adore the chorus, where he mutters “In love, in love” over and over with no regard for time at all. Oliver Powers wrote in the liner notes to that Static Disposal reissue that the most compelling kind of improvisation happens when the performer messes with the groove, yet “Magneto” has none; it doesn’t even have a beat. There are traces of strummed acoustic guitar, which fade in and out constantly, but these offer no time. Somehow they prod the shifting cadence of Cave’s voice to greater rhythmic insistence ; it’s as close to a rock epiphany as the album gets.

The music video of “I Need You”: Watching Cave, Ellis, Thomas Wydler and George Vjestica jam is a thing of beauty.

“Distant Sky” is not bad. Its impact is more narrative than musical — the story of the parents realizing that their responsibilities have increased, that they are no longer free or young, hits me where it hurts. And in the context of Arthur Cave’s death “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied”, sung in a cracked voice, is punishing.

“Skeleton Tree” is the best song on the album. Its lyrics are mostly imagistic but the music is viscerally emotional, with occasional mu Eb chords and a gentle consolation of a melody. Listen to how the structure shifts, as Nick and Warren sing the verse over the verse motif, then over the chorus; listen to how the mood of the line changes ever so slightly with each harmonic context. It took me thirty listens to discern it but the song is so beautiful I can’t blame myself. “Skeleton Tree”, with or without words, would be the ultimate funeral song — it automatically provokes the image of a group of people huddled, post-disaster, wrapped in ragged blankets as the ash falls through the air around them. This is the music of people left behind by tragedy, the ones who really suffer in the wake of death. And Nick and the Bad Seeds deserve the accolades of many for writing a song for them, in a world that makes cold idols of the dead.