Old Guys Keep Gettin' It
My 2007 was overshadowed by a 2006 album that I found in early January. I honestly believe Jay Reatard's Blood Visions will go down as one of the best punk albums ever. While it's mostly constructed out of the turn-of the-80s jittery sounds that lead into hardcore, the levels are pumped so high, and melodic ideas so blunt and ingenious, it works on a whole new level. It's more like those outbursts of desperation Zen Arcade and Let It Be. In 1984, those records seemed like they were coming at the tail-end of hardcore, but they turned out to be the beginning of the indie world becoming self-sufficient, reaching beyond metropolitan scenesters. Similarly, Jay's skills have consolidated after the early-aughts garage rock outburst. His profile has crept up slowly, divided between different bands and roles. The single "Hammer I Miss You" continued his winning streak. Word is that's he's putting out a series of singles and compiling his stray tracks in the coming year.
There were tons of really solid garage and Casio-punk and power-pop records in 2007. Jay was involved with more than a few of them – as a backing musician or producer or even just doing the final master. The Trashies, the White Stripes, the Busy Signals, Black Lips, King Kahn, the Epsilons, the Long Blondes, Volt, Final Solutions, Lamps – enough for a whole Top 10 list. The Trashies’ What Makes a Man Get Trashed was a favorite. Parts sounded like cowpunk, others like Swell Maps post-punk. But with their fuckitall wit and screw-loose hyperness, their most kindred spirits are prickly losers like Angry Samoans and Fear.
The Memphis scene that Jay sprung from him also produced King Louie and his Loose Diamond's Memphis Treet and Harlan T. Bobo's I'm Your Man, records that are just as stripped down, but more reflective. Both of trade-off between honkytonk, soul and singer-songwriter moments, but keep to the grittiest side of each of those genres, detailing hard-knocks over pretty music. They stroll down darker corridors than usual in the alt.country world, and the results compare to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen.
Mark Sultan really came up with something special with The Sultanic Verses. He can kick out a great-lost-rockabillies like "100 Little Woman" and there's a comfort in his croon that makes his lo-fi strumming as wide open as Sun Records sides. But he's even more amazing when he turns his honey-and-gravel voice to fatalistic situations. "We're Sinking" could have been created by Buddy Holly. Yet when Sultan resigns to the fact that he can't wait 'til we "all just die," his exasperation is contemporary. His ability to project loss and confusion make the early-rock styles all the more poignant.
I always wished Zappa didn't try so hard to force classical concepts into his music, only to dilute their effect by adding on chipmunk-voiced hi-jinks. Dan Deacon totally gets away with it, however. I'm glad that I heard Deacon's music before getting tuned in to his madman shtick, 'cause he's much subtler than his gimmicks. The only way to get the transistor bliss in these songs is to try endless combinations of patches and circuits. So if you're going to make music with a pile of gear that looks like it was yanked from a telephone switchboard, the mad scientist image is at least appropriate. There's much on Spiderman of the Rings that elicits pure joy without any funny voices at all. Maybe the silliness is there to disarm you, so you're totally softened when the lush analog blips crest in counterpoint.
Who are Double Negative? They're a bunch of 40-somethings playing hardcore punk, most notably fanzine artist Brian Walsby, who also did time in Polvo. The Wonderful and Frightening World of Double Negative is a 17-minute album that would be an utterly convincing artifact of their youth if it wasn't so well recorded. Fantastic guitar torture, two songs that start with the same riff, blown lungs, and a logo that looks good painted on a leather jacket.
In 2004, I was shocked to find Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith totally revitalized. Their previous decade's offerings weren't bad, just a gradual winnowing of inspiration. But the albums they came up with that year were as brash as their eighties peaks. So the new records aren't quite a surprise, but I like them even better than Lyre of Orpheus and Real New Fall Album. Both released records under new names, and tapped into sounds I thought they'd never revisit – for Cave, outright assault, for Smith, the beatnik synthpop of the Fall's Beggars Banquet years.
Smith's collaboration with Mouse on Mars, under the name Von Sudenfed, sounds phoned-in in the best possible sense. His presence in the mixes sounds like it was laid down well before the tracks took shape, allowing Toma and Werner to cut and flip and dislocate the already sideways logic of his delivery. They put together a set that roams all over the electronic map. "Rhinohead" hearkens back to Madchester dance rock, and is followed up by "Flooded,” another instantly accessible track. As the disc moves along, it gets minimal and odd, looping Smith's rotten-tooth grunts and porous-liver poetry over scratches and sampled country twangs and Afro-pop. Tromatic Reflexxions is the rare supergroup situation where the talents don't overlap, but complement.
Amplified guitars yield their most interesting sounds in the hands of novices, and Nick Cave decided to become a novice guitarist just before turning 50. Under the name of Grinderman, Cave and the core of the current Bad Seeds put together a set of songs that take full advantage of the situation. I've always felt that Cave's work turns for the worse when he tries to restrain himself, tries to be tasteful. In taking up the electric guitar, he went all out, indulging in effect pedals and overtones and sonic glop. The rest of the band’s expertise keeps it from falling apart. The lyrics are the drollest he's had in years. It's like a horny old goat of an English professor jamming with undergraduates.
We are Him is the first Angels of Light album that's drawn me in like the Swans. When he's on, Michael Gira draws you in deep. Playing with a full band at medium tempos, it's conventional on the surface. "Good By Mary Lou" has bluegrass picking and female backing vocals and a bright change for the bridge, yet still takes on the trancelike intensity of his best work. This is crisp and tidy music. Crisp and tidy like that silver-haired man who's rented the attic apartment for years and wont make eye contact and doesn't want anyone to see what he's getting out of his mailbox. You really don't want to know what is on the other side of the apartment door.
The Veils’ leader Finn Andrews also knows how to make lovely music suggest ghastly thoughts. And when he turns to the ugly, like on "Jesus for the Jugular," the horror show is impressive. Nux Vomica, his second record, got released in America this year. He sounds like he's the son of one of those old guys – Cave or Gira. And actually, he is the son of one of those old guys – Barry Andrews of Shriekback. There are moments on this album where he come across as a bit of a sensitive soul, but it doesn't add up. He's a nasty kid who just happens to know his way around a melody. Most promising cabaret rock I've heard in a long time.
I'm not a fan of anthems. I was already weakening on U2 when a friend had an extra ticket as they brought The Joshua Tree to Three Rivers Stadium. The seats turned out to be behind a huge video screen. Rather than watch a two-story television, we went up to very rim of the bowl, where they weren't even selling tickets. And looking down from the empty rows on the crowds below, as the road crew brought up an audience member to strum along with the band, everything looked so tiny and removed and rehearsed, such the opposite of the spectacle they were trying to create, that I lost all desire to ever attend a raised lighter concert again. I wasn't familiar with the new record. As they moved through it, it didn't move me at all, even if could appreciate it as well constructed drama. When those songs went on to become anthems that obviously touched a lot of people, I felt like a grinch, but I remained suspicious of anyone tryin' to bring us all together, man. Yet, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver is full of anthems, and they melt me. That James Murphy's delivers his odes deadpan helps. That his main cause is trying to figure out a way continue his nightlife indefinitely helps more. Coming up with a eurotrash type slur to apply to those who hail from the New World? That's a cause I can get behind.
Me and metal have a weird relationship. There are tendencies that turn me off. I don't care about technical ability. Cookie Monster voices, girlyman operatics can negate a great riff. Double kick drums get ridiculous past a certain speed. But as metal has moved further and further from ever becoming mainstream again, it's gotten very interesting. It's more menacing than ever, and given the genre’s ambitions, that might mean its better than ever. Baroness is mixing Killing Joke apocalyptics with a twin guitar interplay that's not unlike Allman Brothers. Nile's grand tours of ancient Egyptian brutality suddenly seem to speak to Middle East violence. High on Fire's Death is this Communion melds a lot of what's great out there right now, and avoids clichés while really only drawing influences within the confines of the scene. I love how this was a band originally conceived to showcase a guitarist, but Communion is a showcase of drums and roughshod vocals. I like it best at the brutal Mötörhead inspired middle, and I get a bit lost when they turn towards pomp at the end, but I suspect this is the disk that I'll listen to most from now on.
High On Fire - Death is this Communion (Relapse)
By Ben Donnelly