Monday, September 17, 2007

Husker Du at Maxwell's, Hoboken NJ 06/84

Fans of Husker Du should check out this blog page, which has put up a complete set of the band playing Maxwell's in 1984, a month before the release of Zen Arcade. The sound is patchy, but the set is breathtakingly powerful.

My favourite Husker Du record has always been Land Speed Record, which most people I know seem to find unlistenable. For me, it works because it holds together breakneck speed and absurd noise with just enough melody for the whole thing to function. It's raw and rough and crazy, but its best songs are almost sweet as well.

The songs available on the above page are a great example of the band at their best doing essentially the same thing-- they plough through 15 songs virtually without pause, addressing the audience only at the beginning and then again well into the set when Bob Mould tells them to stay on their side of the stage since someone's already given him a bloody lip. The closing cover of Roger McGuinn's "8 Miles High" (originally released on a 7" and on SST's Duck and Cover! compilation, also arguably one of their many finest moments) is heartbreaking and worth the album's download alone. The set covers songs from almost the entire breadth of their career to date and play everything tight and fierce, but desperately lovely. In its own loud, abrasive way, this is a very pretty set of songs.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The right time.

For me, there was only one truly perfect moment in the summer of 2000.

It wasn't seeing Neko Case at the old Jailhouse Rock Café, where monitor problems meant that she delivered a command performance in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage-- that show was breathtaking and profound, but it was a show. I was, just then, working a job I hated and having no luck finding something else, and living in a friend's spare room for the summer while she was out of town but having no luck finding an apartment for August 1, and even experiencing Case's astonishing voice from a foot and a half away didn't make me feel the hope that had been for some time lacking. There were a few other amazing shows that summer as well-- the Dillinger Four at L'X and Alex Soria's Chino playing to a crowd of 15 at Barfly are both nights I'll fondly remember, but like the Neko Case show, even the best nights had difficulty penetrating my feeling of gloom and uselessness.

There was, however, one moment that was totally essential, at which I felt myself in the midst of all my desperation and depression and dread to be perfectly at peace. One afternoon in the middle of a hot week in June, I was at home doing nothing, as usual. That day I had already checked the want-ads and read through the apartment listings, from which it was becoming clear to me that I wouldn't find an apartment for July and would have to try to move in August instead, a change of plan that led to a variety of inconveniences.

The previous evening, I had been to bed absurdly late. I worked evenings at a busy café where the only free drink was coffee, so between my idiot caffeine consumption (I frequently drank five or six cups of coffee in the first two hours of my shift, yet remained perplexed as to why the remaining four hours were riddled with anxiety attacks) and the tension of constant, fast-paced work, it usually took me until nearly dawn to wind down after I got home.

So by 2pm I had eaten breakfast and drunk a pot of coffee, failed yet again to find better work and a stable place to live, and had lapsed into a bruxating state of self-loathing which I knew would keep me occupied until the beginning of my shift at 7pm.

I was sitting on the floral-print sofa trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on reading a book when I heard thunder outside. It wasn't easy to see the sky, as the building where I was staying was wedged between three poured-concrete apartment monstrosities, but by craning my neck out the window I could tell that the clouds had gotten so dark they looked as though they'd been beaten bruised. It was about to rain a lot.

At that moment I had an LP from the Atlantic R&B box set on the turntable and for some reason I felt at last as though I had broken through my grim feeling of failure as I listened to Ray Charles belting away. Outside a skull-splitting thundercrack announced instantaneous hissing rain, and I understood precisely what I must do: I threw the twin living room windows all the way open, ran to the stereo, picked up its two speakers, and wedged one against each screen. Then I brought the needle back to the beginning of the song, dropped it again, and turned the volume up as far as it would go. With a staggering saxophone squeal, "The Right Time" began again at thunderous volume. I gently walked to the window, stood behind the quaking speakers, and looked out over the street.

Rain was whisking past in white waves, prodding and smacking with thousands of drops the size of fingerprints. Several people were rushing up and down the sidewalk on St Marc street, running, hiding, and covering themselves with newspapers, jackets, and bags, but one person had given up and was allowing herself to be soaked. She didn't look too dejected. I didn't feel, suddenly, all that dejected either. I was inside, but I'd just as happily have been outside at that moment. Getting drenched to Ray Charles at earth-shattering volume, I wagered, would feel fine-- it would feel like something. I was, then, entirely at ease. I didn't know if I'd given up, or if I could give up, but like the woman in the street below I suddenly knew the sense in letting it come pounding down on me and not trying to run. I wanted her to know it was fine-- I wanted her to hear how beautiful Ray Charles was, how everything didn't amount to that much after all, and that while the night time was, indeed, the right time to be with the one you loved, there was so much freedom in being stuck in the rain in the middle of a summer afternoon. Charles's tenor call was sweet and rich as a butterscotch candy, and his slowly pounded piano as insistent as the rain. It didn't make sense to keep anything that good quiet, to keep it indoors.

My plan was that, when the song ended, I'd swap the record for another from the collection and lay into Ray Charles doing "The Mess Around" next, but the rain lasted only as long as the first song, then blew itself out. Soon enough there was a bit of hot sun jabbing through a crack in the clouds. Later that summer, I encountered the following perfectly valid algebraic notation: God = Love. Love = Blind. Ray Charles = Blind. Therefore, Ray Charles = God.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Appreciation: "When The Innocent Die" by Anti-Cimex (1982)

(download the song here while it lasts)

There are some fans of thrash and hardcore that positively worship at the altar of Sweden's Anti-Cimex. I'm not really one of them-- as far as hard, fast music goes, my only true allegiance is always and forever to the first two Bad Brains records. By and large I never had great interest in the nails-on-blackboard treble attack of Scandinavian thrash monsters like Anti-Cimex, Mob-47, or Terveet Kädet. At one point I found the speed of Swede/Finn thrash, coupled with its ultra-low production sound, totally overwhelming. I could hardly find the drums, but when I could make them out I couldn't keep up with them, particularly with the paper-shredder din of the cymbals and the rest of the instruments raging around them.

Times change, however, and for some reason the older I get the more sense this music makes to me. Lord knows why that should be so-- by all assumptions this should be the soundtrack to demented, spike-haired, angel-dusted youth-- but I enjoy it now in a way I never used to. Not all the time, but as a treat once in a while. As the esteemed Simon Harvey once said of S.O.A.'s No Policy 7", it's like double-chocolate cake: delectable, but you couldn't possibly eat it every day (Simon later reported a period of listening almost exclusively to d-beat thrash, during which he said he was afraid that he had cauterized his sense of taste and would be unable to listen to "actual music" ever again. These fears were ungrounded-- he's been lately obsessed with the Pipettes and Camera Obscura [the Scottish pop band, not the San Diego emo band]).

Thus I recently downloaded copies of Anti-Cimex's legendary and hard-to-find Raped Ass and Victims of a Bomb Raid 7" EPs and discovered myself with some surprise truly savouring their blistering speed and sore-throat barking. And I was reminded that deep inside I've always had great affection for Raped Ass's opening track, "When The Innocent Die." It is, of course, textbook Scandinavian d-beat of absurd speed and gruelling production, and if you're not listening to it carefully enough you may mistake it for pure white noise. However, what thrills me to no end about this track of the most stripped-down Scandi-thrash is that 50% of its two minutes are composed of a shrill, brilliant, and utterly simple guitar solo. I decided this afternoon to count how many bars of the song the solo actually comprised before stopping at 16 and realizing that it is, in fact, a minute long and comprises half the song's entirety.

Initially it struck me funny that as a band as defiantly and perhaps unlistenably "hardcore" (in several senses of the term) would brandish such an absurdly long solo, that most disdained product of rock stars. But after several listens I got it, and thus realized why the song had always stuck out in my memory: the first half of the song is shrill, murky, and pummeling, but the guitar solo, composed primarily of simply repeated single notes that don't move around the neck much, cuts through all the mangled noise that precedes it, providing a guiding point that leads you over the bristling wreck of the rest of the song. It's a light in fog, a howl in the night, a knife through the dough. In the blinding focus of the guitar line, the rest of the song seems to rage and rumble away in the background, pounding now the subconscious and seeming less like a blasting wind as heavy, fluid wave. It makes perfect sense to me now.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Late-Summer Picks

It's been a busy time of late-- I'm a full time college teacher all of a sudden and have devoted most of my waking energy to coming to terms with that. So in lieu of a post of any significance, let me tell you what I've been enjoying over the last week or so:

Various - London is the Place For Me Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (Vols. 1 & 2). Phenomenal Calypso compilations with a fine variety of sounds and rhythms, really showcasing the genre's lyrical wit and depth alongside its totally hip-swinging best rhythms. Essential.

Sneaky Pinks - s/t EP. Muddy, snotty, catchy, and dumb as shit, there's more fun in the four and a half total minutes of this record than in the rest of everything I've listened to this summer. "Life Stupid, I Stupid" ably sums up the total achievement of recent months in a minute and ten seconds and the perfect couplet, "I want a blowjob / I want a hot dog."

Mary Weiss & Reigning Sound - Dangerous Game. Remember how amazing the Detroit Cobras were when their first record came out, how breathtaking it was to hear smoky girl-group vocals driven by grimy garage punk? Then remember how, no matter how good that first record was and remains, their later releases just didn't measure up, and you started to realize that they were basically just a really, really good cover band with a live set that was spotty at best? I can't have been alone in those feelings, because someone finally had the bright idea of pairing Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las (they of "Leader of the Pack" fame) with Reigning Sound, latest project by Greg Cartwright (he of the Oblivians, the second best garage punk band of the 1990s) and having them perform originals, thereby instantly and thunderously rendering the Detroit Cobras obsolete.

"Oh! Sombra!" by Electrelane. I'm a perennial Electrelane listener and play at least one of their records on a weekly basis. They're easily one of the best bands in the world right now and their records are brilliant. "Oh! Sombra!", off of their second LP (and redone on their B-Sides/Rarities disc) however, is something above and beyond everything else they've done. Absolutely spine-tingling and transcendent, it's a human cry of awe, sadness, and vulnerability. Seriously. Also: entirely in Spanish.

Demon's Claws - Satan's Little Pet Pig. I saw this band at what might have been its first show several years ago and was put off by what was, at the time, their uninspired Gun Club impersonation. I didn't see them again and didn't pay any attention to them until the wise young Shaun Anderson insisted I check out their new record, which it turns out is the best piece of country-blues based garage rock to come out of Montreal since the era of It Came From Canada... comps. "Hunting on 49" stands out as the best track, a sad and soulful wail-n-stomp number that's actually sincere. I'll be seeing this band live soon, I hope.

The Dream Syndicate - The Days of Wine and Roses. I avoided this band for years due to its unfair inclusion under the "Paisley Underground" moniker, but I'm glad I've finally found them. Mixing protopunk sounds with American Roots melodies, this record seems tailor-made for me. The 7+ minute title track album-closer sounds like "I Hear Her Call My Name" by the Velvet Underground folded into "Tombstone Blues" by Bob Dylan, and how could there be anything wrong with that?

That isn't all I've been listening to, but that's what's worth mentioning most just now. There'll be more later.