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Human Switchboard - Who’s Landing in My Hangar: Anthology 1977-1984

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Artist: Human Switchboard

Album: Who’s Landing in My Hangar: Anthology 1977-1984

Label: Bar-None

Review date: Oct. 20, 2011


Human Switchboard - "(Say No To) Saturday's Girl" (Who’Äôs Landing in My Hangar:)


“In this town, a third can’t find work. Another third drink to go to sleep, but everything, everything still seems possible.” Bob Pfeifer murmured into the mic in a tremulous baritone remarkably like Lou Reed’s, his guitar alternating between jangle and brutal stabs, his partner Myrna Macarian throwing up a keening, reeling swell of organ behind him. It was 1981, perhaps the bleakest year of the Rust Belt recession. Cleveland’s Human Switchboard was recording what would be its one and only studio album, a nervy, sexually fixated jitter along the peripheries of post-punk, girl-group and new wave. Who’s Landing in My Hangar?, released on IRS’s Faulty Products imprint, turned out to be Human Switchboard’s commercial and artistic highpoint, and by 1985, after a deal with Polydor fell through, the band broke up.

Who’s Landing in My Hangar? Anthology 1977-1984 gathers much of Human Switchboard’s output, including that lone album in its entirety, two tracks from the 1977 Fly-In single that was remixed by David Thomas of Pere Ubu, the 1978 single “I Gotta Know,” three tracks from the 1979 Prime of Life EP, two demos intended for the second album on Polydor, and some live cuts from a 1984 show at CBGBs featuring new keyboardist Bernie Worrell. Rearranged into chronological order, these tracks show a band gradually moving away from the agitated, guitar-centric, Ubu-ish garage rock of its earliest days, toward a sound that was simultaneously weirder and more pop-friendly, largely depending on who was singing.

Human Switchboard had three core members: singer and guitarist Bob Pfeifer, organ player/singer Myrna Macarian and drummer Ron Metz. A long parade of bass players sat in with the band at one time or another; in the seven years documented by these recordings, six of them come and go, and only the final player, Jared Michael Nickerson, is there long enough to leave much of a mark. (It is when he joins the band around 1983 that the sound begins to take on the funk-no-wave syncopations of James Chance et al.)

At the beginning, Pfeifer seems to have been the dominant force in the band, writing most of the songs and singing lead. Macarian does primary vocals on one early track, the garage-blues-ish “Shake It, Boys,” and you can hear her organ at all stages of Human Switchboard’s development. However, she doesn’t seem to find her own style until Who’s Landing in My Hangar?, where her pop-oriented, melodic songs (“Saturday’s Girl,” “I Can Walk Alone”) provide a counterweight to Pfeifer’s nervy, talk-singing rants. Moreover, she seems to gain confidence on the organ as time goes on. Where in earlier songs, she seems mostly to fill in space around the guitar and drums, by Who’s Landing in My Hangar? her playing has become an essential element of the sound, spilling over its rectilinear contours in giddy swirls and waves. Until the Polydor demos, her instrument always sounds slightly out of tune, giving even the most ebullient roller rink riffs an uneasy tinge. Still, even skewed, her playing and singing account for most of the pop element in Human Switchboard.

Pfeifer, by contrast, is the band’s provocateur, lacing desolate scenarios with manic-depressive energy. Like Reed, he favors a half-spoken delivery, mostly in verse, but occasionally in stuttered, overexcited prose. His songs are the sexually obsessive ones, using surprisingly graphic imagery in female-objectifying fantasies. For instance, in “Shy About You” (from the Prime of Life single), he doesn’t even want to meet the object of his lust, creepily preferring to obsess on the shape of her hips, the cut of her skirt, rather than talk to the girl. “I like you better…when you’re, when you’re away from me,” he moans, and he sounds more like a serial killer than a nice quiet boy.

Pfeifer and Macarian had very different personalities, musically speaking, so it’s no surprise that Who’s Landing‘s best song was the one that combined their energies. “Refrigerator Door,” the album’s longest track, simultaneously alienates and pulls you in, chills and reassures. It starts with Macarian singing an R&B-tinged reassurance, an “ooh-ooh-ooh” that comforts, and Pfeifer recounting the beginnings of love. As the song goes on, though, that love falls apart. Pfeifer recounts his memories in a voice that seems drained of emotion, while Macarian croons, “Ooh, baby, where you been all night?” In the final emotionally cathartic moments of the song, Macarian is still arguing for connection in a counterpoint that runs “Oooh la la la la la, tell your baby,” while Pfeifer has switched to another language entirely (Slovenian, it turns out). It’s a powerful statement about isolation within relationships, the lonely core of long-time, not-what-they-used-to-be partnerships.

By 1983, when the Polydor demos were recorded, the chasm between Macarian’s pop and Pfeifer’s no wave sensibilities had deepened. “A Lot of Things,” sung by Macarian, is the most conventionally melodic song in the anthology. Even the organ seems in tune here, losing its vertiginous weirdness for a smoother, more tuneful sound. Pfeifer, for his part, kicks in a misanthropic rant about driving with a friend’s wife on a turnpike, en route to some sort of soul-destroying affair (“She Invites”). Their trajectories are so different in these cuts, that you wonder if the band was already developing fault lines.

Yet even so, after the Polydor deal fell through, the band had one more bout of regeneration in 1984, when Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell joined and the band settled on Jared Michael Nickerson as bass player. The result is a much funkier, rougher sound than on the Polydor demos, built on a very solid bass and drums (that’s Metz still, the band’s drummer throughout) foundation and embellished with Worrell’s crazy slides and swoops. Dave Schramm (Yo La Tengo, The Schramms) was also regularly sitting in during this period, and you can hear him insinuating a little bit of country into the band’s sound. These later recordings have the sound of a band still interested in what it’s doing, exploring a few new avenues and maybe ready to take a big leap. But, after seven years of not quite making it, Human Switchboard gave it up in 1985.

Who’s Landing in My Hangar? does a good job of summarizing this band’s development and capturing its odd appeal. If you missed them the first time, it’s a good introduction, and if you didn’t, a fine reminder of what was so compelling — and disturbing — about this band.

By Jennifer Kelly

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