Saturday, February 25, 2012
I recently read Kristin Hersh's memoir "Rat Girl." What an amazing book, perhaps the best rock book I've ever read, she is a very talented writer. The book recounts a year of her life when she was 18 and ends with the recording of this album. In the course of the book, she is homeless, goes crazy, attempts suicide, gets pregnant, moves with Throwing Muses from Rhode Island to Boston and finally signs with 4AD after a bunch of weird trans-Atlantic phone calls with label head, Ivo Watts-Russell. In between she hangs out a lot with the old Hollywood actress Betty Hutton. When I compare her life with mine at 18, we might as well be from different planets. I found the book absolutely riveting. She also writes about her music quite a bit, the strange impulses that drive her creatively and provides anecdotes about the origins of some of her lyrics. She describes the irrational forces that generate her music and seems puzzled that people like her music so much. Listening to her descriptions you'd think she was describing Throbbing Gristle rather than Throwing Muses. I've never found the Muses' music particularly weird or inaccessible, but having read her book it now seems much darker and mysterious to me. I'm never going to be able to listen to this album again without thinking about the drama and the trauma that gave birth to it. "Call Me" gets the album off to a rousing start. Hersh sings, stutters, bleats and shrieks her way through the hard driving song which is full of energy and then slows down at the end to a more stately pace, the opposite approach of most rock songs which more typically start slow and build in energy. The lyrics are full of dissatisfaction and when she describes her insomnia, unhappiness and loneliness I start flashing back to the incidents in her book. It is followed by "Green," a love song by her bandmate and stepsister Tanya Donelly. It is sung by Donelly who has a gentler voice than Hersh and the music is a bit poppier than Hersh's songs although the lyrics are in a similar personal and poetic style. "Hate My Way" is driven by David Narcizo's martial drumming and Hersh's agonized vocals as she describes suicidal feelings and self-loathing. It is one of the most powerful songs on the album and listening to it I instantly connect back to her mental illness in the book. It seems like such a dark song, but in the book she explains the origin of the song in a humorous manner. She was accosted by a militant atheist distributing pamphlets, practically the entire first verse is based on his ranting. She makes it seem goofy, but the remainder of the song I think is based on her feelings and even knowing its bizarre origin, there is no denying the misery expressed by her words. The amazing "Vicky's Box" is next. There is a funny section in "Rat Girl" where the album's producer Gil Norton asks Hersh about the meaning of this song and he is gobsmacked when she replies that she had a roommate named Vicky who painted stuff on a box and that is the origin of the song. Norton keeps trying to interpret the song and Hersh tells him not to pay attention to the lyrics anymore, that she doesn't know what they mean. Hersh's description of her creative process suggests that the songs come from a dark part of her, "evil Kristin" is how she puts it, that is disconnected from her normal self, her description of her songwriting almost makes it sound schizophrenic. I can't explain the song either, there is a torrent of stunning poetic imagery describing alienation and desperation that is clearly related to some of the events of the book, but the ultimate meaning of the song eludes me. I do love it though, it is a killer song with a funky bass riff and slashing guitar chords backing a ferocious Hersh vocal. "Rabbits Dying" starts quiet and slow and then tears it up rockabilly style. Shifts in dynamics are so much a part of Hersh's style, I wonder how much the Muses may have influenced the Pixies who became famous for that and who knew and played with the Muses in their formative years. The lyrics recount the last moments of a dying rabbit. It is tempting to think of this as some sort of metaphor, but Hersh is so obsessed with animals in the book that I suspect that it really is about a rabbit. Side two begins with "America (She Can't Say No)" which is another enigmatic song full of surreal and disturbing imagery. I believe it refers to her mental breakdown, there is a lot of stuff similar to the events in her book particularly her recurrent hallucination about a snake she is carrying around. It may be fueled by mental illness but it is still a brilliant song. In contrast to the dark subject matter, the music is perky and fun. It has a country feel to it laid on top of a bouncy new wave beat, sort of like a blend of the Talking Heads and the Blasters. “Fear” brings some more anxiety and tension as well as references to running away which appears in several of the songs of the album. Curiously, fear is actually a sensation that is largely lacking in “Rat Girl.” Hersh faces events and experiences that would frighten me and yet remains placid and unperturbed in the face of them. The music is taut with an insistent riff and some Television-like guitar interplay. “Stand Up” explores another emotion lacking in “Rat Girl,” namely jealousy. She comes across as such a sweet person in the book that the rage in this song seems out of character, another manifestation of “evil Kristin” perhaps. The music has more of a groove to it than most of the songs on the record although it has its spiky passages as well. “Soul Soldier” is Hersh’s version of a love song, arguably her most normal song on the album if you overlook the knife references (which make me think of her suicide attempt.) I have no idea what an “apple run to heaven” means, just another one of those great surreal lines that she drops so effortlessly. Despite the romantic character of the lyrics, the music is jerky and frenetic and Hersh hoarsely bellows out the words. Then halfway into the song the music abruptly slows down and becomes sedate, almost slinky. The final half of the song swerves back and forth between the two styles of music. “Delicate Cutters” is another fascinating song, I just can’t get over that Hersh was only a teen when she wrote it. It seems directly inspired by her mental illness and I assume her suicide attempt. The lyrics are staggeringly powerful, wherever they came from, they are a work of genius. The music is quieter, more acoustic, but still quite dark and Hersh howls and wails her way through the song with scary intensity. This is a terrific album, one of the best and most startling debut albums of its era. Kristin Hersh is a remarkable talent, a true original. Her music is honest and personal, yet creative and poetic. I can't say that I understand where it comes from, her musical drive seems as much a curse as it is a gift. It haunts her like a ghost, she hears voices in her head and sees the colors of the music, that fascinates me, but it doesn't seem very pleasant. In the book she describes being nauseated by the process of creation and it keeps her tense and sleepless until the song is finally finished. I felt sorry for her reading her description of it and it makes me all the more appreciative that she shares her creations with us. Recommended to people who think it would be cool if the Pixies jammed with Sleater Kinney.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Illusions of Grandeur
Posh Boy PBS 104
My favorite radio show is "She Rocks" on KXLU. It is an eclectic mix of music featuring "gine-core" which is how the DJs term rock made by females. When I was listening a few weeks ago, I heard an old school punk song that I liked quite a bit. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't peg it, I thought it might be an obscure Avengers track or something. I was flabbergasted when the ladies on the radio said it was by U.X.A. because I have their album and I have always hated it. I picked it up in the early 1980s because I dug the cover but when I played it I was turned off by De De Troit's off-key caterwauling. I hadn't played it for 20 years, in fact it was on my purgatory shelf which is where I stick records that I'm thinking of getting rid of. I dug it out and took it for a spin and I have to admit that it is better than I remembered although I can see why I disliked it so much originally. De De Troit is not a good singer but she does have some charisma, she kind of reminds me of Johnny Rotten but without the passion or fun, she even seems to be affecting an English accent at times although I'm pretty sure she's from Detroit. The lyrics, which are largely written by De De Troit, are pretentious dreck for the most part, without the directness or humor that characterizes the best early punk music. Lines like "He was a killer, he was a television set" from "Tragedies" or "I'm trying to telephone I'm asleep in the rain and when this high wears off we'll score some more pain" from "Death From Above" make me wince. I don't mind that Troit takes herself so seriously or attempts to make poetic statements about life and society, but I do mind that she does it so badly. "Illusions of Grandeur" is an apt title for such an ambitious yet inept album. Troit's lyrics are awkward, forced and full of cliches, they remind me of Snoopy's stories in "Peanuts." There are a couple of exceptions, I do like "Hand In Glove" which has some interesting imagery despite the clumsy language of the song as well as the nasty "Sister Godrieda" which is based on a real life murderous nun. The saving grace for this record is the music which really rocks and lacks the typical monotony of hardcore. The tempo varies considerably across the record, similar to their peers X or the Flesh Eaters but without the chops, although the band can play. I appreciate the commitment to pop in songs like "U.X.A." and "I Don't Lose Sleep" and I like the raw power of "No Time," "Tragedies," "Immunity" and "Non Fiction." There really isn't a dull number on the album and it does get me bopping. As far as old school punk goes, it is well below the top tier groups, but I've heard worse, heck I'd much rather listen to this than the Germs' album. I basically enjoy it as long as I don't listen too closely, so I've pulled the album out of purgatory and it's back on the regular shelf. Recommended for fans of the Avengers.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Kill Rock Stars/Jealous Butcher KRS425/JB-053
I bought this from the Kill Rock Stars website. They are one of my favorite labels not only because of their excellent roster of artists, but also because of their commitment to vinyl even during the dark days of the CD era. This double record set is a high quality product, a model of what records should be. It is made of heavy cardboard with a handsome lyric booklet made from glossy paper featuring stylish calligraphy and amusing photographs. Curiously the photographs in the album booklet are largely different from the photographs in the CD booklet and the vinyl version has five extra tracks not on the CD! I've been a fan of the Decemberists since about 2003 when I bought "Castaways and Cutouts" and I've been a devoted follower ever since. Colin Meloy is arguably the most erudite figure in alternative rock and his love of language permeates the album so much that you practically need to keep a dictionary next to you to figure out the lyrics. The title of this album for example refers to a literary form derived from a genre of classical Spanish literature. This is also apparent in the opening song "The Infanta" which describes a procession honoring a newborn Spanish princess in very colorful terms. If anyone has ever used the word "infanta" in a pop song, I've never heard about it. The song describes the parade in detail and then Meloy throws in a twist at the end suggesting that the royal infant may be of more humble origin. After the exotic touch of the blowing of a shofar at the opening of the song, the music gets the album off to a rousing start with one of the more thunderous and fast-paced songs in the Decemberists' catalog. "We Both Go Down Together" depicts a rich guy in love with a poor girl who jump off the cliffs of Dover because they can't be together due to parental disapproval. The song has a catchy riff, a lovely violin line and a yearning vocal from Meloy that has just a touch of sardonicism hinting that perhaps the narrator (the rich guy) is a bit unhinged. It is followed by the very grim "Eli The Barrow Boy." I only know the meaning of "barrow boy" because Richard Thompson referred to one in his equally grim song, "The End of the Rainbow." This folk-style song reminds me quite a bit of Thompson's early work with its mournful vocal and haunting accordion solo, it would fit quite well on "Hokey Pokey" or "Henry The Human Fly." The song depicts the misery of the title character tormented by his poverty and the death of his beloved, he ultimately drowns himself. When I first heard this album, I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard the big drum beat that introduces and pulses through "The Sporting Life." The song sounds like a cross between Motown and David Bowie's "Modern Love." At last a Decemberists song for the dance clubs! The song is written from the perspective of an adolescent soccer player who has suffered an injury in a losing effort in an important match and has to deal with the disappointment of his coach and his father as well as losing his girlfriend to the captain of the winning team, ouch. Side B opens with "The Bagman's Gambit" which narrates the story of a United States Government employee who has a love affair with a Russian spy which involves the American giving the spy government secrets. When the spy gets detained by the Russians who suspect duplicity, the American travels to St. Petersburg and bribes a bureaucrat to release her. Who but Colin Meloy would turn something like this into a pop song? The music is a roller coaster ride, alternating between gentle acoustic sections and parts where the full band jumps in roaring like the Arcade Fire as well as a trippy dream sequence near the end. It is one of the best songs on the album. "From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)" is another folk song. It is a relatively simple song in which an elderly person hopes for a letter from a love lost at sea. "Sixteen Military Wives" is an unusually topical song for Meloy. He attacks American arrogance, imperialism, pompous celebrities, the Academy Awards and spineless, inane media coverage. There is a recurrent motif of numbers running through the song that is suggestive of a children's song or nursery rhyme but the content of the song itself is scathing and direct. In contrast to the anger in the words, the music is jaunty and joyful with a rich instrumental sound bolstered by the prominent use of horns. It is one of the catchiest songs that Meloy has ever written. The band also made an amusing video for the song with Meloy playing an overgrown, belligerent schoolboy and it is well worth checking out if you've never seen it. The side ends with the beautiful "The Engine Driver." The song depicts a writer trying to deal with an unrequited love by expressing his unhappiness through various fictitious characters. The elegant, heartfelt lyrics are complemented by some lovely and memorable music. Side C kicks off with the equally beautiful "On the Bus Mall" although the lyrical content could hardly be more different as it describes the struggles and the bond between two teenage runaways working as gay prostitutes. The song is full of evocative imagery, it is brilliant lyric writing. Next up a lively accordion riff introduces the epic and extraordinary "The Mariner's Revenge Song" which is my favorite Decemberists song. I saw them perform it during the encore at their show at the Greek Theatre last summer and their stirring rendition of it just blew me away. It is a wonderful theatrical song full of shifting textures and melodies that recounts the tale of a young sailor's revenge against the scoundrel responsible for his mother's ruin and death while the pair are trapped in the belly of a whale. Again who else but Colin Meloy would ever write a pop song like this? After this raucous number, the side finishes sedately with the tender acoustic song "Of Angels and Angles" which is about a couple enduring life's travails together with the singer finding beauty and comfort in his partner. It provides a delicate and soothing finish to the album proper. As I mentioned above, vinyl lovers get a bonus with this album. Side D contains "Picaresqueties" five bonus tracks that are far better than your average bonus tracks. Thematically all of them would have fit nicely on the album, although instrumentally they are more stripped down. "The Bandit Queen" opens and closes the side. The first version has a honky tonk piano and sounds like a western saloon song. It opens with some dialogue and features tap dancing during the break. The second version is just Meloy and an acoustic guitar and is more like a folk song. It tells of the singer's love for the nine-fingered titular character. There is a folk cover of Joanna Newsom's "Bridges and Balloons" and it is easy to see why it would appeal to Meloy with its dazzling language and outlandish rhymes - "caravel" paired with "Cair Paravel." "Constantinople" is loosely adapted from the legend of Hero and Leander and describes how a magistrate's daughter is engaged to a sultan but loves another and how her lover drowns swimming to her across a river - "painted by the Bosporus in blue" as Meloy elegantly puts it - just your typical pop song. "The Kingdom of Spain" starts like a companion to "The Infanta" but changes direction to ruminate on our helplessness in the sway of love. It is just Meloy and a piano, another gorgeous song. Side D is a wonderful and generous gift from the Decemberists to us vinyl lovers. The Decemberists are one of my favorite groups, I'm so grateful to Meloy for creating such intelligent and eclectic music. I like dumb pop songs as much as the next guy, but I'd rather listen to something that stimulates my mind as well as my body. One of the more intriguing aspects of Meloy's work is the way he has managed to blend the styles and themes of traditional Anglo-American folk music with modern pop music with a skill that is rivaled only by Richard Thompson. How ironic that the true heirs to Fairport Convention should emerge from Portland of all places. Recommended to Scrabble fans who dig folk rock.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Turn On The Music Machine
The Music Machine
Original Sound OSR LMP 5015
Sean Bonniwell died on December 20th of last year. He was one of the more interesting characters in rock history. After being a folk singer, he became the leader and songwriter of the Music Machine, one of the classic garage bands of the 1960s. In the 1970s he gave up music after getting ripped off by his management and record companies and explored various facets of spirituality eventually becoming a devout Christian. He had a very strong vision and an eye for theatricality. He dressed the band entirely in black at a time when paisley and bright colors were in fashion, had them dye their hair black as well and to top it all off, each member wore a single black glove while playing. The band's only hit was "Talk Talk" which reached number 15 on the Billboard chart. It has a simple, pounding riff and lyrics that express frustration and alienation, the classic recipe for garage band immortality. These guys are often dismissed as one hit wonders, but this album is full of fine Bonniwell compositions. My favorite song on the album after "Talk Talk" is "Masculine Intuition." It is a hard driving song with screaming guitar lines and an irresistible beat creating a sense of urgency that heightens the desperation in the lyrics. "The People in Me" is another excellent song. Lyrically and musically it is the most psychedelic offering on the album and features raga-like fuzz guitar. If it wasn't for "Talk Talk," "Wrong" might have been the song we remember the Music Machine for, it ought to be a garage band classic. It has a fast-paced fuzz guitar riff punctuated by bursts of organ, an insistent, propulsive beat, and a powerful vocal intoning more desperate lyrics. "Trouble" is in the mold of "Talk Talk," another straight ahead, beat-heavy song with heavy riffing fuzz guitar and wailing organ over lyrics of teenage angst. "Come On In" bears a curious resemblance to the early Doors with its lugubrious vocal and prominent organ line. "Some Other Drum" is a quiet, almost folky song that reminds me a bit of the Lovin' Spoonful. There are four covers that were supposedly included against Bonniwell's wishes at the record company's insistence. I like their version of the Beatles' "Taxman" which has a ferocious, noisy guitar solo from Mark Landon and a forceful, dynamic beat. Their version of "Cherry Cherry" is surprising soft-rock in character, it reminds me of the Sandpipers. I can see how Bonniwell was irked by its inclusion, it is totally out of character with the rest of the album. "See See Rider" sounds like it was based on the Animals' version particularly in the organ riff and is only notable for another hot solo by Landon. "96 Tears" has an exaggerated vocal by Bonniwell, he sounds like a lounge singer fronting a teen dance band. The fifth cover was apparently approved by Bonniwell for the album. It is a slow version of "Hey Joe" that is very similar to Tim Rose's arrangement of the song. Bonniwell's voice is higher than normal, it almost sounds like he is imitating Arthur Lee. It is interesting but as far as the slow versions of "Hey Joe" go, I prefer both Tim Rose and Jimi Hendrix's interpretations. The covers do compromise the artistic quality of the album somewhat, but there is no denying the potency and originality of Bonniwell's music. I admire the darkness and consistency of Bonniwell's vision. His themes of confusion, desperation and anxiety stand out in a time when most West Coast bands were more interested in singing about love, beauty and getting high. The raw power and distortion in the band's sound is also very striking. Bonniwell was an impressive talent (Sundazed's CD reissues of his work for Warner Bros. are also worth checking out) and it is unfortunate that the record industry treated him so shabbily, he might have made a lot of great music with more support. Recommended for goths who dig garage bands.