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A little background: John Koerner, alias “Spider John,” alias “Creepy John,” has been a fixture on the Minneapolis/St. Paul scene since the Kennedy administration. Starting his career on the West Bank of the Mississippi in the shadow of the University of Minnesota, Koerner quickly hooked up with two other like-minded gentlemen, Dave Ray and Tony Glover, forming Koerner, Ray, and Glover. The trio went on to record a number of albums for Elektra during the early- to mid-60s folk boom, and also played numerous engagements around the region with another local folk player, a dude who I think moved to New York City and made some records for Columbia over the next 47 years. (KRG blew the doors off of that guy in the early 60s. They played honest to goodness blues in the style of Leadbelly and Josh White, rather than that Woody Guthrie stuff). (JK!)
Anyhow, ten years on, Koerner set up in a room above the Coffeehouse Extempore on Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis, and under the careful engineering ears of Dave Ray, worked out eight tracks of versions of songs he had written over the years. (Dave Ray’s typed notes for the record go into copious detail about the recording, the costs, and the politics—”The deal is bread ahead to us and the records to you by the shipper of our choice. No COD’s…The fat guys advertise mostly nothing while we are busy with mostly something and have here what you want to hear.”)
And it is what I want to hear, in fact, because it is fine stuff. Willie Murphy and the Bumblebees (also still working in MPLS) accompany Koerner on seven of the eight music tracks. The music is best described as sort of stompy, jug-bandy folk-blues, with Koerner’s hobo-ish vocals and his 12-string leading the way. There are not a lot of fireworks on the record, there’s not a lot of experimentalism, but what there is is just good, solid, straightforward American songs. “Ramble and Tumble” kicks off the set, setting the tone musically and thematically (songs about leaving town, failed relationships, etc.) “Don’t Terrify Me” and “Be Careful” continue in much the same vein.
Then something odd happens: nothing. The only sound to be heard is a sort of vague rumbling. This is the work of Tom Olson, who is clearly either incredibly unique and/or high as FUG. “Waiting for Go with Normal Dub” is the name of the track, and it’s a skit (Prince Paul, you didn’t invent nothin’). And it’s strange. The skits aren’t to everyone’s taste, but they are noteworthy for even being present on a record in 1972 that’s not meant to be a comedy record.
“Everybody’s Goin’ For the Money” kicks off the music on side 2; this is just Koerner, no band, and it’s a track that would be equally at home being sung by early 70s Ray Davies (honestly, he might be Koerner’s evil musical twin; they’re so similar, but where Davies tends toward rock n’ roll, Koerner tends towards folk. Tracks such as this is where they briefly and unmistakably intersect to the point that they’re the same dude with different hair). “Skipper and His Wife” and “Thief River Falls” (sung by Willie Murphy) lead into another short Tom Olson skit (high as FUG), then one more music track (“Taking Time”), then a last skit, with Olson and Ray (both high as fug).
Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes isn’t ever going to crack anyone’s top 500 list, sure, but it’s a solid record, perhaps elevated in my mind because of local associations/nostalgia. Koerner’s still spidery, he’s still riding the same bike to the same places, and he’s still making music the same way he has for darn near fifty years. That’s a darn long time, so I’m not going to argue with him.
— Theodore Harwood
Spider John Koerner: Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes (1972)
1. Macalester Don’t Stop Now
2. Ramble, Tumble
3. Don’t Terrify Me
4. Be Careful
5. Waiting For Go With Normal Dub
6. Cindy’s Numbers
7. Everybody’s Goin’ For The Money
8. Skipper And His Wife
9. Thief River Falls
10. Mr. Image
11. Taking Time
12. The Wall
Several years ago I was running/writing the mp3 blog Uncommon Folk. It quickly emerged as a fairly popular destination for music lovers to find the latest in independent indie-folk music. It also connected me to a lot of amazing fans, artists, labels, and other people in the music underground across the world. I was receiving boat loads of free albums and schwag for myself and to give away on the website. I was getting on guest lists at shows to see bands like Grizzly Bear play in front of maybe 50 people at the Empty Bottle. Sadly, those days have come and gone for me. While I still keep in touch with a few friends I made back then, a good number of the bands I covered have gone on to hit it (relatively) big and, you know, I kind of dropped off the face of the earth for a few years. One band I have never gotten over that I was introduced to during my time doing Uncommon Folk is Dirty Projectors.
Dave Longstreth is an exceedingly nice man in person. He’s also really tall and kind of intimidating. But that is kind of how it goes with genius, right? You know, quirky, nice, imposing, wildly intelligent, and with a bent to write concept albums about Don Henley. So it goes. As most people know by now, Dirty Projectors are one of the most original, inventive, genre-bending, and distinct bands of our time. They are also incredible live. While I have not seen them with the ladies at the helm, Dave always compiled only the best of touring musicians for his road show and records. No matter the guise, no matter the form, Longstreth and Dirty Projectors always bring it, and the history of the band really does start with Dave, in a bedroom, recording songs under his own name—if only for one album.
The Graceful Fallen Mango was released by This Heart Plays Records in 2002. I’m not sure how many copies were pressed or if it ever had a vinyl release along with the CD (I’m guessing not). I also have little to no idea about the record label. As I recall, I received my copy from the awesome and estimable Western Vinyl who would later put out the bulk of Dirty Projectors albums. The entire album was recorded by Dave in a basement (with a few guest appearances) using mostly guitar, bass, and sparse percussion. It was, as you may have noticed, released under his given name, but is also considered to be the first Dirty Projectors album. On The Graceful Fallen Mango, you will find a lot of the qualities that have become staples for the band’s current sound. There are the hints of African guitar rhythm and style; the big, bombastic bass drum; exceedingly complex vocal harmonies; and, naturally, the strange psychedelia that is the Dirty Projectors sound. Since it was recorded on a 4-track, it’s only so deep and the production is only so good, but that really doesn’t deter Longstreth from adding a plethora of layers to even the simplest of tracks.
Ultimately, if you are fan of Dirty Projectors, then you will love this album, but Dave’s solo work also has the potential to attract a lot of more casual music fans. There is something very sweet about The Graceful Fallen Mango, something a little more intimate than what comes across with a fully functioning and improvising band. You know, the bedroom album, the one we all grow up kind of hoping to create, joining the ranks of our solitary sonic heroes. (Technically, the album was recorded in his brother’s basement.) Strangely, this record has never been reissued (to the best of my knowledge) and it’s kind of fallen of fthe radar of both the band and the record label’s websites, history, etc. I’m guessing that since Dave and company are now collaborating with the likes of David Byrne and Björk that it is only a matter of time before The Graceful Fallen Mango is back in real record stores and not just floating out there on the internets.
— Josh Honn
Dave Longstreth: The Graceful Fallen Mango (2001)
1. Spring Is Here
2. Follow Me not If You Still Care
3. Easily Resigned
4. I Don’t Know
5. Lay Down Restless Bones
6. Constellation That’s Mine
7. Time For Bed
8. She Turns To Ash
9. What If I
10. The Graceful Fallen Mango
11. Maggie And Me
12. Everything Will Happen
13. We Are Striving
14. Yield; Be Held (Aloft)
15. At The End Of The Day
Like any experimental band working within a genre, Jungle Brothers have gone through a myriad of styles, themes, and adaptations throughout their 20-year career. The bulk of the band’s output, though, came during the crazy influential times of 1987-1993, when hip-hop was going through the pleasures and pains of pushing boundaries while at the same time acclimating to the corporate/popular consciousness. Acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest (both members of the Native Tongues collective along with Jungle Brothers) were selling records, attracting critical acclaim, and putting out some of the most experimental music of any genre in the 90s. Nothing expresses the complexity and oddity of these times like the band’s third album, J. Beez Wit the Remedy. Released by Warner Bros. in 1993, J. Beez is an epic contradiction of experimentation and compromise. It’s also really weird and dope as fuck.
If Jungle Brothers ever end up on Jeopardy!, the answer will be, “The first hip-hop band to ever collaborate with a house producer.” The debut Jungle Brothers album, Straight Out of the Jungle, included the single “I’ll House You,” produced by NYC house pioneer Todd Terry. The album also rocketed the band onto the national stage as Michael Small (Mike Gee), Nathaniel Hall (Afrika Baby Bam) and Sammy Burwell (DJ Sammy B) went on to sign with Warner Bros. Done By the Forces of Nature, 1989’s debut for the major label, went on to sell fairly well, but was drowned out by, among other things, the dropping of the hip hop classic 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul. Despite the critical success of the album, Jungle Brothers took four years off before releasing the J. Beez Wit the Remedy in 1993.
J. Beez Wit the Remedy is solid early 90s hip hop infused the jazz, funk, psychedelic, house and other experimental qualities. The album’s opener, “40 Below Trooper,” is a pretty straight forward banger that proposes the band’s new posture: a considerably less Afrocentric tone, fused with a lyrical and sonic experimentation toward the weird. In fact, it seems Jungle Brothers took those four years to put down their Bibles and Marcus Garvey pamphlets and smoke a ton of weed to strange ass records. Nothing supports this hypothesis like the track, “I’m In Love with Indica,” a stoned ode to the band’s drug of choice. The only huge exception to this is the second track, “Book of Rhyme Pages,” which is probably one of the deepest songs one will ever hear dealing with life philosophy, the fear of modern times, and the history of hip hop. Other cuts like “Good Lookin Out” are more basic, bass line and beat driven inventions, something that was be perfected by A Tribe Called Quest two years earlier on Low End Theory. Props are due to Jungle Brothers, though, for taking it a step further and enlisting famed bassist Bill Laswell on the record. One of the best tracks, “My Jimmy Weighs a Ton,” is filled with dope break beats, smooth female vocals, and extremely mellow rhymes about wooing the ladies, and, of course, the size/weight of one’s member. “My Jimmy” is arguably Jungle Brothers’ best attempt at coupling classic hip hop and sonic experimentation. By the end of the album, dudes have dispensed with the former and taken the latter to the extreme.
“Spittin’ Wicked Randomness” is definitely the apex of Jungle Brothers’ hip hop experiment. Broken beats, extreme fades, messy samples, lo-fi instrumentation, and seemingly freestyle/live rhymes, create what can only be described as the rap equivalent of avant-garde noise rock. In other words, it’s pure freaking genius. There is no way in hell a Warner Bros. A&R could have heard this track and thought, “This is going to be a hit!” In fact, I would pay good money to see the footage of the expressions on the record execs faces when Jungle Brothers played this track for them. Jungle Brothers don’t do skits, they do noise vignettes; amazing 2-3 minutes tracks that definitely inspired the likes of James Dewitt Yancey (J Dilla) and Guillermo Scott Herren (Prefuse 73), and probably have (should have?) influenced a whole host of indie rock bands who trend toward the psychedelic/noise end of the rock spectrum.
J. Beez Wit the Remedy is certainly not going to find a home with just any hip hop head—this record was written for a pretty exclusive amount of music lovers—which isn’t to say that Jungle Brothers are an overly-intellectual or pretentious group, but that these dudes were on some whole other level. If I had to take one lyric to express this record it’d have to be from the track “I’m In Love with Indica,” the stoned ode that has the band rhyming, “Momma used to say what kinda shit you on? I said, momma I’m lifted, I’m gifted. I did a show last night and I ripped it.” Also, and I could be wrong, I think they sample the song from Castlevania at some point. In other words, all of those changes in style, theme, and adaptation that take some bands 20 years to go through, the Jungle Brothers can do in about 20 minutes. Dudes just decided to do both.
— Josh Honn
Jungle Brothers: J. Beez Wit the Remedy (1993)
1. 40 Below Trooper
2. Book of Rhyme Pages
3. My Jimmy Weighs a Ton
4. Good Ole Hype Shit
6. Spark a New Flame
7. I’m in Love With Indica
8. Simple as That
9. All I Think About Is You
10. Good Lookin Out
11. JB’s Comin Through
12. Spittin Wicked Randomness
13. For the Headz at Company
14. Manmade Material
There might not be a more curious case of early 90s indie rock than Swirlies. Formed out of the ashes of a Go-Go’s cover band,¹ they began their career in Cambridge, MA, in the summer of 1990. Sonically and historically they stand somewhere in between the height of shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine, Ride) and the up and coming indie rock explosion (Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Polvo). They are guitar rock all the way, but also restless and creative in the studio, making use of samples, synths, shifting tempos, effects pedals, and other assorted musical weirdness. On top of all this, in 1992 they signed with Taang! Records, which is one of the more outrageous mismatch band/label combinations I can think of. ² For these reasons (plus like, a million others), Swirlies seem to have been left out of the mainstream musical canons of both ‘shoegaze’ and ‘90s indie rock’. They remain lost in an historical abyss, floating on the boundary waters of multiple genres, full with rich personal history of headache inducing lineup changes,³ bad record deals, sparse touring, bird watching, and some really incredible albums.
Named after an obscure graphic equalizer that they and engineer/producer Rich Costey used while making the album, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton was released in 1992. Arguably the Swirlies finest achievement (and definitely their most well known release), the album tears/rips through all sorts of rock/noise territory, and impressively enough it’s done continuously, blending songs, samples, and noise together in an album collage of sorts (if it weren’t for the mp3s I wouldn’t have a clue about song titles). The four-piece setup on BTAB is pretty generic for the time period, with guitarists Damon Tutunjian and Seana Carmody providing the soothing boy/girl vocal aesthetic. Like other notable bands of the era (i.e. Slowdive) this interplay is both the process and the purpose,¼ with the relationship oriented lyrics being either too vague or incomprehensible due to drawn out pronunciations, high pitches, or being buried underneath noise. And yet the vocals remain supremely important to the Swirlies experience, with the point of interest being the easy going pipes of Tutunjian and Carmody, which are both sexual and sleep inducing (that is to say, quite pleasant in a variety of contrasting ways). And the melodies are catchy, of course.
It would be a bit irresponsible of me to not give a certain amount of attention to the guitars on this record: they bend and swoosh and jangle and riff and distort and are the driving force behind Swirlies. So what else? There’s the last minute of “BELL”, which shifts its mid-tempo pace to a frantic, Pavement like guitar-freakout finish. There’s the stop and pop drum fills of “Vigilant Always”, which never cease to pull out a listener’s air drum. There’s the sluggish pace and sad moody vocals of “His Love Just Washed Away”, which musically sounds like love being washed away, no joke. There’s “His Life of Academic Freedom”, a nonsensical track which features Tutenjian singing and playing guitar against background clatter, a synthesizer, and off key horn, and other odd noises. There’s the 1-2 punch of “Pancake” and “Jeremy Parker”, both distortion heavy tracks of wobbly beauty, as the screeching chords combat the angelic voice of Carmody. There’s the super fast, almost punk “Park the Car By The Side of The Road”, which sounds like a long lost Polvo B-side or Merge 7”. There’s “Tree Chopped Down”, which starts off with a dude combing his hair and ends with him wanting to get the fuck away from you. There’s the album’s true head bobber, “Wrong Tube”, which grooves to an almost-motorik beat before dissolving into post-punk and back again. There’s the album’s final track, the vulnerable and melancholy “Wait Forever”, a guitar/vocals-only affair that after several minutes of silence is finished out with some stoned-sounding dude (presumably a band member) talking about the potential drug possibilities of shoving mud up one’s nose.
In a sense, Swirlies are a victim of their era. They emerged at a time when there was an abundance of similar sounding American (and British!) rock bands, and their general lack of genre associations left them mostly unheard and forgotten. Of course they are also victims of themselves, as their use of samples, etc., might make a listener feel isolated and/or not ‘in’ on the joke. It just seems surprising that for an album that encapsulates a time period so well, it’s not brought up more often, either in writing or in conversation. But shit, either way, the proof is in the pudding, and in this case, the pudding is Blonder Tongue Audio Baton. Listen.
— Eric Marsh
¹ The story is: everyone’s favorite local/punk filmmaker, Rusty Nails, was recruiting members for the aforementioned Go-Go’s cover band, which was called Raspberry Bang. Somehow, Swirlies were born out of this.
² Blonder Tongue Audio Baton was released chronologically in between Poison Idea and Sloppy Seconds LPs. Taang! is/was also home to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Dickies, Negative FX, and so on. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
³ Not limited to: Gavin McCarthy (Karate), Kurt Vile (The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile), Adam Pierce (Mice Parade), Ron Rege Jr. (Lavender Diamond), +20 or so others.
¼ The raison d’être, if you will. Or is it raisons d’êtres?
NOTE: The entire Swirlies discography is available for free download at their highly informative/archival website. We highly recommend you check it out. http://evil-office.net/swirlies/index.htm
Swirlies: Blonder Tongue Audio Baton (1992)
3. Vigilant Always
4. His Love Just Washed Away
5. His Life Of Academic Freedom
7. Jeremy Parker
8. Park The Car By The Side Of The Road
9. Tree Chopped Down
10. Wrong Tube
11. Wait Forever
Here we open with a broke jazzy instro take on Little Jimmy Morrison and The Doors’ Light My Fire complete with twangy reverb guitar lines. Cute, typical cash-in record style, no big deal. The next tune, “Delusions,” perks the ears with its ragged guitar tones and the disaffected high whiny (but in a compelling way) vocals bemoaning something or another. Hmm, some moody tuff jangle. Then, POW!!!! “Reflections” kicks in and we realize this is some of the rankest, rawest garage snot power trio sub-Hendrix blaze we’ve heard. Super rough lurching riff heaviness. On the b-side we dig “Gypsy Fire” and the king-hell track of this 8 song blaster, the punk-as-fuck slash and burn nihilist bummer epic “No Tomorrows.”
“Holy shit!” you say. What is the deal here?
The Firebirds were a mystery band of most likely session guys doing a quick one-off session for the ‘60s exploito label Crown. The burgeoning youth culture and album market of the hippy era led to plenty of cash-in records to be sold at Woolworths and supermarket cut-out bins. Most of these exploitation records are cheesy bad (as opposed to cheesy good) and not worth your time. However, Light My Fire was a complete anomaly in a sea of crap. This record is filled with violent, low-rent Hendrix/Blue Cheer power trio broken-amp guitar destruction, non-stop Mitch Mitchell wanna-be drums and a weezy, moody singer on a stoned bummer trip.
This album is a companion piece (and most likely culled from the same recording session) as another Crown LP by the 31 Flavors titled Hair. Both albums have some overlap in songs. What is so remarkable about the Firebirds is just how raw and gnarly they sound and that it came out in a corny go-go girl cover and was picked up by unsuspecting squares and clueless parents (or whatever). Just imagine whoever getting home with this and playing “No Tomorrows” while trying desperately to get their hip vibe together!
The guitar tone is not far removed from Greg Ginn’s Black Flag flavor of riffs and dissonance. There are two blues tunes (“Bye Baby” and “Warm Up”) , which really benefit from the raging ripped speaker solos going on. The whole thing comes on as a garage band trying to be heavy, or some stoned teens in the basement who\’ve had Vincebus Eruptum on the turntable for weeks. The seemingly slap dash nature of the recording and the loose spirit here belie the fact that the guys could really jam together and have some killer songs.
This is the kind of record that a lot of people will never get because it seems so base, rough and cheap in a musical sense, but fuck ‘em. With the right ears, this record will perk you right up. You’ll shake your head in blissful confusion and mutter, “this is the sound, man.”
— Nick Myers
The Firebirds: Light My Fire (1969)
1. Warm Up
4. Bye Baby
5. Gypsy Fire
6. Free Bass
7. No Tomorrows
8. Light My Fire
I came across Beasts of Bourbon by way of a long and deeply entrenched (bordering on insane) obsession of Nick Cave. An embarrassing amount of my free time over the years has been spent laboriously pinpointing all of Nick Cave’s influences, as well as all who he has influenced, and combing through the Australian underground of the 1970s and 80s. Beasts of Bourbon have since become one of my favorite Australian/Cave “peer group” discoveries.
B.O.B. began as a side project, including two members of Aussie swamp punk innovators The Scientists and several other musicians (including a Hoodoo Guru), but has since evolved into one of Australia’s longest working and most well known pub rock bands. This first album, 1984’s The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded for a hundred bucks in just an afternoon’s time, and now stands out as an absolute classic in terms of fractured, drugged-out swamp rock and dirty blues-injected punk. It is honestly the only Beasts album really worth having, despite the irony that it’s their only out-of-print record, as subsequent recordings become less trashy and more standard bluesy bar rock (yawn). Influences are obvious (Cramps, Gun Club, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams) but the Beasts tipped the tables with their own take on aggressive country/punk/r’n’r/blues mayhem.
The album starts out with a fairly delicate version of trad countryman Leon Payne’s “Psycho” (a song that could have easily fit onto Nick Cave’s “Murder Ballads”) and extends outward into an unraveled, hypersexual, swaggering underworld of lust and excess, aka the epitome of ‘rock and roll’ as it should be. “Grave Yard Train” (another cover compliments of CCR) is a seven-plus minute story-song jam of guttural howls and haunting tragedy lament, traditional American country style turned psychobilly swamp. And the album closer, “Ten Wheels for Jesus,” is a countrified punk stomp, a humorous and sarcastic trucker’s tale that is almost ridiculously Cramps-ian in execution, but stellar nonetheless.
I can see this album being written off fairly easily due to preconceived notions of swamp rock and “psychobilly” styling. Trust me, I have my own reservations about such things. But the early Beasts of Bourbon lineup seriously excels, and this record is a true gem in a sea of shit. I credit this to the fact that they’re Australian (the Outback must be conducive to some really fucked up and awesome art/music). Check it.
— Melissa Geils
Beasts of Bourbon: The Axeman’s Jazz (1984)
2. Evil Ruby
3. Love & Death
4. Grave Yard Train
5. Drop Out
6. Save Me A Place
7. Lonesome Bones
8. The Day Marty Robbins Died
9. Ten Wheels for Jesus
This week I wanted to feature a selection by Kevin Kujawa who has turned me onto a lot of good music the past couple months at his blog, Ace Frehley for President. This record is one that I have been playing more than anything else since I downloaded it and the more people I can share it with the better. In addition to his blog, please check out Kevin’s band, Mannequin Men. They are on some highly recommended type shit.
First of all, this is one of my favorite records that I have ever heard and I didn’t even know it existed until about two or three years ago. Finding it was another task. My old boss at the record store, Tim, used to play me Darin’s first foray into the swampy sound, Born Robert Walden Cassotto, all the time. I couldn’t believe that it was really “Mack the Knife” singing it. Then I heard the story behind it.
Apparently, when the 60’s hit, Bobby got less involved in the pop music schmaltz and became much more politcally active. He attached himself to Bobby Kennedy during his run for president. They were dear friends and Darin was actually at the hotel the day Kennedy was shot. Bobby was devastated. He sold all his shit, moved into a trailer in Big Sur, and started his own record label, Direction, which released this gem sometime later. Playing nearly all of the instruments himself, writing, and producing doesn’t even seem to have phased the process. The song’s flaws seem intentional and the goal of the recording seems realized.
Commitment is a record that might seem odd at first, but one that has fit any situation I’ve tested it in. We listened to it every single day while recording the new Mannequin Men record, and our engineer Mike now swears by it. It represents everything I have come to appreciate about music. It’s stark but solid, funny but not goofy, smart but not coy. Best of all, it’s a man truly removing all the veneer. A truly great musician testing his mettle. . . . Whoa. Fanboy.
Bob Darin: Commitment (1969)
1. Me And Mr Hohner
3. Saulsalito (Governor’s Song)
4. Song For A Dollar
6. Distractions (Part 1)
7. Water Color Canvas
9. Hey Magic Man
10. Light Blue
Music can be consumed in many ways, and arguably the most overlooked experience in music is falling asleep to someone’s sonic art. And yet, there can be something distinctly transcendent about falling asleep to an album; a space-time happening where sound bridges over the unknown recesses of reality and dream. Western social constructs lead us to believe that the act of falling asleep is solely a form of restorative ignorance: we yawn because we are bored; we sleep because we are tired; we rest in order to wake up to the experience of reality, the reality of experience.¹ Yet, sleep—especially the transition into sleep—is reality and experience, and while we may never fully grasp our subconscious slumbers, it has certainly never stopped us from trying. One worthy attempt is the act of falling asleep to music.
Spacemen 3—Pete Kember (Sonic Boom, Spectrum, Experimental Audio Research), Jason Pierce (Spiritualized), and Will Cauthers (Spiritualized, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Freelovebabies)—released Dreamweapon in 1990, two years after the main track was recorded live at Waterman’s Art Center in Brentford, London. To me, Spacemen 3 have always been my generation’s Velvet Underground, and Dreamweapon something like the band’s ultimate psychedelic experiment. It’s also the record I have fallen asleep to the second most in my entire life.²
“An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music” is a 44:21 live jam session filled with guitar, synths, random bits of spoken word, crowd noise, and, of course, sitar. The composition is a magnificent exercise in the power of psychedelic drone, a style of rock Spacemen 3 heavily influenced and advanced from 1982-1991. Dreamweapon, though, dispenses with any attempt at typical pop song structure in exchange for a hypnotic aural landscape. In other words, if the drums on every other Spacemen 3 album were metronomic, the decidedly lack of a standard beat on “An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music” attempts to create a world without time. This all may sound heavy, or a little too close to stoner logic, but Spacemen 3 do credit a friend in the liner notes for “joint rolling” on Dreamweapon, and also released a record called Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To. Which all makes sense, since the power of Dreamweapon is precisely that it is a drug: it will calm you down, chill you out, and, if you are like me, send you off to a blissful sleep almost every single time.³
“An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music” is followed by two more tracks and on a whole tells the tale of a band beginning to fracture. “Ecstasy in Slow Motion” is a Pete Kember solo track heavy on the ranging, repetitive drone of synthesizers and other electronic space age wizardry which he would continue to push (often to extremes), most notably, under the guise of Experimental Audio Research. Meanwhile, “Spacemen Jam”, while still technically of the same drone variety as the previous tracks, is filled with blues-based guitar riffs, a total staple of Jason Pierce’s band Spiritualized. Neither of these tracks hold a candle to the epic awesomeness of “An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music”, but they also do not take away from the record. Although, to be honest, I’ve only listened to the last two songs a handful of times, mostly because I seem to always be in the middle of some amazing dreams by the time they come on . . . and seem to perpetually wake up none the wiser on the grander questions of existence, experience, and reality. But, hey, at least I’m trying.
— Josh Honn
¹ Thus, falling asleep to music is widely seen as dismissive, or rude at best.
² First place belongs to The Curtain Hits the Cast by Low.
³ Writing about this album is the only thing keeping me awake right now.
Spacemen 3: Dreamweapon (1990)
1. An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music
2. Ecstasy in Slow Motion
3. Spacemen Jam
Walt Mink formed in the late 1980s at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Three kids from the coasts, John Kimbrough (guitar/voice), Candice Belanoff (bass), and Joey Waronker (truly one of the great 90s drummers), smashed together in the middle of the nation and started playing power trio rock. Miss Happiness was their 1992 Caroline Records debut, featuring ten tracks, home studio versions of which were previously featured on their cassette-only releases Listen, Little Man! and The Poll Riders Win Again.
My brother, attending Macalester at the same time, brought home this record in 1992. I can remember at age eleven not being terribly into much of it, with the exception of the layered version of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” partway through the record. That all changed when I gave the record another serious listen towards the end of high school. For whatever reason, the complex drum patterns and guitar lines hit me much more strongly, and I never really looked back. The group’s powerful early 90s power trio jams fit the bill just right.
The frantic opening of “Miss Happiness” seems to signal a punk freakout, but before long, it settles into a mid-tempo indie story of a glowering girl and a wasted summer. “Chowdertown” and “Love You Better” continue the pattern of trying to connect with girls, but there is very little that is gentle on display. The volume, combined with Kimbrough’s sneering vocals (“I’ll never use the L word again”) twist the focus on love into a bitter, almost jaded outlook (allmusic.com rightly compares the band to Jonathan Richman in this respect). “Showers Down” starts to get a little more abstract and features a little more dynamic range than the previous tracks. Shit gets real at track six, though, which is the aforementioned “Pink Moon.” Kimbrough gives Nick Drake’s gentle, inward-focused yet ominous track the Walt Mink treatment, turning Drake’s warning into more of a triumphal announcement. Whereas Drake’s original uses a very minimal arrangement that is almost scarily quiet, Walt Mink layer distorted guitars and a solid bass over Waronker’s sympathetic drumming. “Factory,” the last track, is a five-minute epic, a look at the nostalgic past combined with a questioning look at the present, full of imagery that makes me think, for some reason, of grainy super 8 films of backlot shenanigans amongst friends.
It’s difficult to pin down what Walt Mink is all about, where they fit in. That tried and true method, comparison to other bands, never quite seems to approach the truth of the matter (they don’t really sound like Dinosaur Jr., they don’t really sound like Pearl Jam, they don’t really sound like Pavement, they don’t really sound like Sebadoh, Fugazi, Nirvana, et al.) I suspect that the record industry didn’t really know what to do with them because of this. The songs don’t really have an obvious radio-friendly sound to them; there aren’t many obvious hooks and choruses. It’s almost as if they have the instrumentation and power of Cream, only it’s as if Clapton, Bruce, and Baker all grew up listening to Hendrix, Black Sabbath, and Minutemen instead (if that’s not saying too much).
NOTE: Miss Happiness is out of print, but it’s not terribly expensive (about $8 if you can find it at your local record store). If you can’t find it, though, here it is.
— Theodore Harwood
Walt Mink: Miss Happiness (1992)
1. Miss Happiness
3. Love You Better
4. Showers Down
5. Quiet Time
6. Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
7. Smoothing The Ride
8. Croton-Harmon (local)
9. Twinkle and Shine
The long-term musical effects of being involved in ’90s “riot grrrl” culture are heavily laden with the past. As I start to meander through my 30’s, proto-riot girl jams have infiltrated my audiophile mind more than any band I was actually there for. I mean, how often do I listen to my Bikini Kill records anymore? Once, twice a year maybe . . . I suppose that part of the aging process is better appreciating what came before, and putting the shit that you held so close to your heart during the coming-of-age years away for next generations to discover.
All digression aside: by way of punk rock feminism, I was at a tender age exposed to the multitude of (mostly British) women-led post-punk bands of the 1970/80s. A long line of bands became my obsession: The Slits, Au Pairs, Liliput, Delta 5, Maximum Joy . . . but it was the first self-titled record by The Raincoats—championed by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Kathleen Hanna to Thurston Moore—that remains one of my absolute favorites. It is 100% the most provocative post-girl group album . . . in my mind at least, even more influential than the Slits’ Cut. And like most people, the first time I heard it, I thought it was a total mess: a totally fucking glorious mess of epic proportions.
The Raincoats was released in 1979, and was a lot more pure in its “fuck the system” statements than, say, the first Sex Pistols record. DIY ethics were espoused via “out with proper musicianship” attitudes and freeform playing, minimalist sounds, weird folk elements, heavy grooves, and an overall feel of chaotic freedom. Four women—Ana de Silva (vox/guitar/keys), Gina Birch (vox/bass), Vicky Aspinall (violin), and then-Slit Palmolive (drums)—effortlessly balanced the fine lines between dissonance and dreaminess. They also perfected the art of lowbrow lofi harmonies like no other. Plus, a tiny veritable who’s who of guests join in: Lara Logic of X-Ray Spex and Essential Logic plays sax on “Black and White,” and legendary oddball Mayo Thompson takes production credits.
“Lola” (yes, that “Lola”—thanks Mr. Davies!) is the song that the Raincoats are most famous for, which is a fairly grand off-kilter gender reversal of an already “gender weird” song. This cover is magnificent, but my two favorite songs on the album run on opposite ends of the spectrum. “The Void” is a quietly disturbing, melancholic folk-punk jam whose lyrics have haunted me for years (“When I looked at the streets/ and when you were talking/ when I tried to think/ when I tried to think/ the void the void” . . .why I find that so horrible and sad, I’ll never know). Whereas “No Side to Fall In” is basically the most chipper avant-garde/posi anthem ever made by a band devoid of youth crew antics. Meanwhile, “You’re A Million” has pretty much been the soundtrack to every shitty breakup I’ve ever experienced; at its base, it’s the most gentle “fuck you” homage (“This is for you as my lover was for nobody/ You’re a million and I’ve loved you/ You’re a million and I’m yours/ We’re a million to come/ We’re a million to go” —aargh!) among a mutated background of noisy babble and plucking.
So what did this record truly do for me? My younger self would kick my current self’s ass for this, but it taught me a lot more about “girl power” than most of the confrontational drama of my younger “smash patriarchy/slut” world. Lead with your softest step, roll with the imperfections, be weird freely, always critique the dominant paradigms, chill the fuck out, etc.
— Melissa Geils
The Raincoats: The Raincoats (1979)
1. Fairytale In the Supermarket
2. No Side to Fall In
3. Adventures Close to Home
4. Off Duty Trip
5. Black and White
7. The Void
8. Life on the Line
9. You’re a Million
10. In Love
11. No Looking
We’re a million to go . . .
UPDATE: This album has been reissued by Kill Rock Stars. Buy it here.