Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, April 24, 2006

All I Ever Wanted Was to be Your Spine

Archers of Loaf
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.

Artist: Archers of Loaf
Albums: Icky Mettle; Vee Vee; The Speed of Cattle; All the Nations Airports
Source: Bought used (IM); Bought new (VV, SOC); Promo (ATNA)

I’m finding it a little hard to believe that I’m about two months and 20 entries into this project and I’m not even finished with the A’s. Heck, I’m not even through the first shelf.

It’s also still hard to believe that I can’t show this project to my friend J.P. He would have loved it, but he’s been dead for more than five years now. It’s not something I’m necessarily angry about anymore; I’m often sad about it, but mostly I just think it’s absurd. He was 29, he was happy at work, about to get married and was in remission from Hodgkin’s Disease, a curable form of cancer. How does it make any sort of sense that he’s not alive right now? Like I said, it’s ridiculous.

In most cases (including this one, probably) it would be an oversimplification to say that my friendship with J.P. was based on music. But we first got started talking about the Pixies during my freshman year of college, and it was a conversation that never really stopped for the rest of the decade that I knew him. We talked about other things, had other interests that drew our attentions, but in the end music was the first, best way we knew each other. (Which also makes it hard to believe I got through 20 entries without mentioning him; the odds that I’d go through that many records not associated with him in some way would have struck me as pretty thin.)

The Archers of Loaf, like so many of the bands that I count among my favorites (and quite a few that I don’t), came to J.P. and me together. We were doing an episode of the college radio show that we did together for almost four years, and the band’s debut disc Icky Mettle was new in the station. Our first instinct, as always, was to look for a funny song title (the band already had a name that would be fun to say into the station’s microphones, so that was covered). We started with “Hate Paste,” which was loud and cool and pretty good, though not great. Then we got around to “Web in Front,” which was pretty much right on the money – “All I ever wanted was to be your spine” went the chorus, and who wouldn’t want to get behind that?

From there, we listened to more records, saw the band live, and they always delivered. But the pinnacle of our Archers experience came at a Yo La Tengo show at the Trocadero in Philly. We got there early and got to talking to the other geeks who were there to secure a solid spot in front (over to the left of the stage, where more of the action always took place). One guy pointed to J.P.’s Archers t-shirt and asked, “You like Archers of Loaf?” Thank goodness he didn’t give a snide reply like, “No, I’m wearing this shirt ironically,” because the guy’s next question was, “You want a free copy of their new album? I have a box of promo discs at home.”

Score. Ever the pal, J.P. handed over his mailing address along with a note that he needed two copies of All the Nations Airports – one for me, too. It’s the disc sitting on my desk right now, and while it’s a great album, it also reminds me how stupid, how utterly absurd it is that I can’t remind J.P. of this story right now. He loved telling it, and always painted the scene just like I remembered it: fun, plugged into the music, striking up a discussion about a band we loved.

And that’s that hardest part: I still have friends who like music, but it’s not the same. I really miss talking about it and hearing it and living through it with J.P., and there’s no one I’ll be able to be like that with again.

When we first heard this band, “All I ever wanted was to be your spine” sounded a note of defiant…well, defiant something. It was hard to tell, but the swirling guitar noise and Eric Bachmann’s stark vocal bark made it make sense. Ten years later, a bout of spinal meningitis hit J.P. during his final, last-ditch treatment for the cancer that killed him just a few months later. Shit, I would have been his spine right there and then, if it would have helped. Now I hear the line a little harder and sadder, but I also try to pogo around the room when the Archers come on, ignoring the sheer absurdity of being in my 30s and doing it without J.P.

SISOSIG? Not a chance of any of this going anywhere. One of the worst parts about J.P. being dead all of these years is that as time goes on, I don’t have any new memories of him. I need the ones like this.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Just Missed It

Apples In Stereo
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: The Apples in Stereo
Albums: Tone Soul Evolution; Her Wallpaper Reverie
Source: Bought used (TSE); Bought new from the label (HWR)

It’s nearly the end of the second semester of my writing masters program, and I’m looking forward to having no classes for a few months (it may only be late April, but school’s almost out for summer!). I’m going part-time, which means I only take two courses a semester, unlike the other students who mostly take four.

By some cruel trick of scheduling and fate, during not one but both semesters this year, it seems I’ve neglected to take the really excellent courses. I hear the other folks talk about some class I’m not in, like Image and Belief or Writing II, and they all seem to agree that it’s that course, and not the one we’re sitting in during the conversation, that’s the one to take. I keep showing up, but am just missing out.

That’s sort of how I feel about The Apples in Stereo. By the time I showed up, the cool part of this Elephant 6 super-pop group was already over. Chris swears that the early singles are all a gas, and I have it on good authority that their debut LP, Fun Trick Noisemaker, lived up to all three parts of the title. And in the late 90s, nearly anything that reared its homemade head out of the E6 collective was something I wanted to at least give a listen to.

Tone Soul Evolution may only be the second official full-length album, but you can already hear the helium-infused air leaking out of the band. For every tune like “What’s the #?” which is about nothing at all and will stay in your head for a week if you’re not careful, there’s a half-baked piece of power pop like “Tin Pan Alley,” which only half-convincingly longs for a very specific time that probably never existed. It’s fun to hear, but it’s easy to have your attention wander at points – and it ain’t exactly an epically long record, so points off for having filler.

It’s nearly the opposite with Her Wallpaper Reverie, which is a short EP that is more like the old stuff but also newer. Essentially, it’s a compact reworking of Black Foliage, a great, sprawling double album that Head Apple Robert Schneider produced for his buddies The Olivia Tremor Control. Like that longer record, HWR lets layered pop songs rise out of odd and varied repetitions of an instrumental “theme,” each one alternately making way for the other, and before half an hour is up you’ve been hit with “Strawberryfire,” “Benefits of Lying (With Your Friend)” and…well, really I could just list all of the tracks. No one makes pop like this anymore, and really only the Elephant 6 guys ever did.

Beyond these, I skipped getting any other Apples records. Their time was clearly almost up, and before long they were officially defunct (that’s what happens when the singer and the drummer get married and then get divorced). Oh, and on the school front: I think I may have gotten a bead on which courses are the good ones for next semester…

SISOSIG? I’d feel like a fraud calling myself a Real Apples in Stereo Fan, but I do dig these discs. Wallpaper is a keeper without question, and there’s too much to recommend about Tone Soul to ditch it. Really, really good pop is harder to do than it looks (really, really hard I’d guess, based on the sheer amount of bad pop out there) and the Apples are as good a source for fun trick noisemaking as anything committed to tape.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fabulous Prizes

Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Antony & the Johnsons; Massive Attack; Sundial
Albums: Hope There’s Someone EP; 100th Window; Acid Yantra
Source: Free w/subscription to Magnet

Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but I don’t really dig reading Magnet all that much. I mean, I used to—back in ’96 or so, when Option (one of the very best music magazines ever) folded and Puncture was only picking up some of the slack, Magnet was the very best indie-rock mag to be had. The fact that it was published in my very own hometown made it even sweeter, or at least meant they’d cover local Philly acts like Lenola and the Photon Band. The other fact—that they didn’t accept my pitch(es) to write for them—actually didn’t matter much to me. They covered the music I liked, and did so with style.

Then a couple of things happened. First, I got to know some of their writers. Some of the guys (and they’re almost always guys in this kind of enterprise) were OK, but some really irked me. I made the acquaintance of one Magnet scribe at a music festival in NC, and he just rubbed me and my traveling companions the wrong way more times in 2 ½ days than you’d think possible. Before long, it was hard for me to read the magazine without “hearing” the personalities of the people I knew behind the words. Like with magic, once you know how the trick is done, it becomes a lot (or maybe just a little) less entertaining.

The other thing that happened is I stopped being super-duper into the music they covered. Maybe I grew up and/or old(ish), or the scene fractured a bit too much, or they lost the thread a little, or some combo of the above…no, wait.

It was me.

I moved on. A little bit, anyway. I simultaneously became harder to impress with loud, guitar-based pop/rock and stopped getting the promos in the mail. It became more work and more expense to hear more of what I cared just a little less about.

Which is where these CDs come in. When you subscribe to Magnet, you get a free disc, usually connected to a recent article. I guess they do an interview and score a box of promo discs to give away. Everybody wins.

Especially me. At this point, I subscribe when there’s a free disc I want. The year’s subscription is usually cheaper than buying the disc new; flipping through the magazine is still kind of fun (if not the experience it once was when it would guide my purchases and promo requests for the next month or two); and it still feels “free,” which gives me license to try something I’m not sure enough to buy outright. Sometimes I miss as much as a year’s worth of issues, just waiting for the right slate of promos to appear in their subscription ads. Sad? Maybe. But it gets the job done, and overall it still makes me a reasonable faithful subscriber.

A bunch of the free discs have totally worked out (they’ll come up in their own entries here) and some I hated so much that they’re long since gone. Then there are these three, all from different eras of my Magnet-tude. The Antony one I’m still kind of pissed about, but mostly I’m pissed at me: I saw it in the free-disc list, and instead of reading closely enough to notice that it was a 3-song EP (and not the full-length I Am A Bird Now album), picked it over some equally/more worthy discs. So I paid my full year’s nut and all I got in return was this lousy (well, actually, pretty good) short single.

The other two were antidotes to moments of curiosity. I’ve always wanted to like trip-hop more than I think I actually do, so I picked up the latest Massive Attack in 2003. It’s nice, though everyone now says it’s their worst one ever. And Sundial is from a moment in 1995 when I was edging further into the psych-rock abyss (hey, I lived in Psychedelphia!) and the long, acid-soaked distorto-guitar jams sounded like the way to go. Neither is really all that enjoyable now, but they served a purpose at the time. And they didn’t cost me a cent—unless you count the cost of the magazine I didn’t necessarily read all the way through.

SISOSIG? I think this one is pretty clear. Antony stays; I have a feeling I’m going to fully discover him one day, and until then this is a good place to get a foothold. 100th Window and Acid Yantra, on the other hand, are destined to go. I listened to both of them recently, and it’s hard to even remember what I liked in the first place (especially with Sundial—I’ve got a bunch of Bevis Frond records, which do the same job a million light years better). I got my money’s worth (*ahem*) from them, but they’ve outlived their usefulness, even as free gifts or fabulous prizes.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Just Good

Fred Anderson
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Fred Anderson Quartet; Robert Barry and Fred Anderson
Albums: The Milwaukee Tapes Vo. 1; Duets 2001
Source: Promos

The silliest thing about being a critic of anything is the main premise of the job: deciding if something is good or bad and then explaining why. I’m in an MFA program for Art Criticism and Writing, and after nearly the full first year, I’ve yet to hear anyone explain in a cogent way how (or, maybe more importantly, why) one does this. In my years as a music critic, I eventually got a to a place where I trusted my ears pretty well, but even then it was a more or less ridiculous process of translating what my ears heard/thought into an eloquent 200 words, with a star grade (some number out of 5) at the end.

These two discs are both live recordings and feature the tenor sax playing of Fred Anderson, but that’s really all they have in common. They’re from sessions nearly a quarter century apart (Milwaukee is an Atavistic reissue of a record from 1980; Duets is from 2001), with different band configurations (the early date is a quartet, featuring the still-active, still-amazing Hamid Drake on drums; the later one is, as the title implies, all duets with percussionist Robert Barry) and essentially different aesthetics (the younger Anderson is still an AACM firebrand; his older persona a self-assured master).

The one thing they do have in common is that they’re good. Just good. Which I don’t mean as some sort of backhanded compliment, implying that they miss the “great” bar by some distance or anything. Rather, when you put either of the discs on the stereo, it’s just easy to hear how good they are—a quality that is easier to hear than to explain. They’re a pleasure, even in the spots where the music is challenging, which is probably the bulk of the total playing time. But Anderson and whomever he’s playing with are locked in ‘round the clock, whether they’re belting blues, exploring tonal freedom or just hitting a solid groove. It bypasses the hard-thinking parts of your brain and goes right to the pleasure centers, though without being spoon-fed or too easy to be worth it. The music is just good, damn good, which is all records need to be sometimes.

SISOSIG? They’re good enough, they’re smart enough, and gosh-darn it, I like both of these discs. I’m sure these will never be desert-island favorites, but they’ll always be worth having (and keeping).

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Chattering Classes

Animal Collective
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Animal Collective
Album: Sung Tongs
Source: Bought used

One of the (many many many) downsides of the modern mass-media age is something that’s usually mislabeled as “too much information.” Everyone thinks we’re getting too much input, but the real problem is that we’re getting too much of the same input. If there’s a new movie coming out, you’ll not only read/see/hear a ton of interviews/reviews, but they’ll all be more or less the same. Artists don’t really get a wide variety of questions during all the interviews they do, and even the savviest person will start to give the same answers over and over.

The part where this bugs the record buyer in me is when I read/see/hear so much of the same thing about a new record that, before I’ve heard the record, I feel like I’ve heard it too much. I remember skipping Tortoise’s TNT because, even though I dug the hell out of their Millions… disc, by the time it was in stores I’d read versions of the same thing in Magnet, Puncture, The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Weekly and any number of websites and other media outlets. Never heard a note of the thing (still haven’t, too), and I was already sick of it.

This info glut nearly got me with Animal Collective. This was a band I read/saw/heard way too much about before being able to give them a proper hearing. The Other Music crowd was all atwitter about the band, and after a few albums way below the radar, Sung Tongs was the one that started to get lots of ink (real and virtual) from everyone from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone to (I swear) Time.

But I was determined not to miss this one, because all that media coverage – being essentially all the same – kept hitting a lot of notes that were theoretical music to my ears. The writers and pushers wanted to sell me this band, and the bait they dropped sure smelled good.

The disc didn’t disappoint, either (or even just get smothered by its own hype). Sung Tongs is weird and mysterious, while also being accessible enough to make sense a little after it hits your ear. It’s loose and structured, noisy and quiet, natural and oddly contrived. The rhythms and melodies and harmonies all do their own jobs and each other’s, and long tracks like “Visiting Friends” don’t fall apart any more than tight tunes like “Who Could Win a Rabbit” might meander a bit. Everything hangs together, and it’s not entirely clear how or why. But it makes you glad to give it a listen, every time, especially away from the chattering classes.

SISOSIG? This is a keeper, but I also think it’s “enough.” That is, I still read/see/hear about the band’s newer material, but right now I feel like this one does the job for anytime I’m in the singular Animal Collective Mood.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lost in the Supermarket

American Music Club
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: American Music Club
Albums: California, Everclear, Mercury, San Francisco, Love Songs for Patriots, 1984-1995, Come on Beautiful: The Songs of American Music Club
Source: All bought new, except for San Francisco, which was bought used

Despite some toe-dipping into the river of music downloads (the legal kind, mind you), there’s something about it that is deeply unsatisfying. Apart from the absence of an object, one that you can look at and hold in your hands, there’s also the great thrill of record shopping that iTunes and eMusic and the like are missing.

Simply put: I love the experience of being in a record store. Not even necessarily shopping, either; there are countless times I’ve browsed the racks of a good record store for an hour or more and left without buying a thing (my sincere apologies to the store owners). But I always learn so much from flipping through the racks. From the time I was able to get myself to a good record store (like Tunes and Record World in NJ; Utica’s The Last Unicorn in college; later Third Street Jazz, the Philly Record Exchange, Other Music and the Downtown Music Gallery) it was just a joy to walk around, doing a form of research, gleaning what I could from the song titles, release dates, album covers and personnel listed on the packaging. And don’t even get me started on the score of finding something amazing and long-sought buried in a cut-rate used bin.

As a result, I seem to not only have memories associated with the music on the various discs that make up The Beast, I also have lots of specific recollections associated with the moment when I actually shopped for and bought them. American Music Club was a band I’d heard a little bit about my freshman year of college (they got good write-ups for their Everclear album); by my senior year, I’d heard enough about AMC, it was now time to actually hear them. So, home on a break from school, I drove over to Tower Records in Cherry Hill to pick up the then-new Mercury.

I still have a perfect memory of holding the cardboard long-box in my hand (this was back when CDs were still sold in wasteful cardboard packaging so that record stores didn’t have to reconfigure their LP-sized racks) and looking up to see Girl M. She was my high-school girlfriend, my first grown-uppish relationship (well, as grown-up as you can be at 17) and one that had flamed out slowly at first, then crashed badly. All totally my fault, I might add; M was never anything but good to me, and I fumbled the transition to college badly. When she said she didn’t want to talk to me anymore, she was probably right.

Anyway, there she was and she said hello. I responded haltingly, not sure where we stood, and asked the small-talk, “How’ve you been?” question that one asks to acquaintances. She said something like, “A lot better now,” and gave signals that we were back on speaking terms again. We still are. She lives far away, with a great husband and a cute-as-a-button baby, and whenever we talk via e-mail or (occasionally) in person, it makes me glad. M is one of those people that I will always have an affection for and that I hope will always have some place in my life. That she was willing and able to forgive me for my youthful dumb-assness speaks to just one of her many good qualities.

I’m not sure if that meeting colored my reaction to AMC once I got the disc home, but I instantly fell for the band. Mark Eitzel’s songs and the contexts that the group provides are amazing; they have experiments that both fail (the self-referential pop-lunge of “Hello Amsterdam”) and only mildly succeed (Eitzel comes closer to making the “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” fantasia work than anyone has a right to), but so much of it is so right on. Try to listen to “Firefly,” “If I Had a Hammer” or pretty much every note of Everclear without feeling that this band is more than “the spokesmen for every tired thing.” They say more than either their words or notes would suggest, and their songs are sturdy enough to hold up to both time and the range of interpretations on the Come on Beautiful tribute album.

SISOSIG? While it seems I could probably cut some chaff from the two or three inches of shelf space my AMC collection takes up, truth be told these are some of my favorite records. If there’s a loser in the bunch, it’s probably their first-phase swansong San Francisco, but between the stellar cover of “California Dreaming” and the spot-on-ness of “What Holds the World Together” and “Fearless,” there’s still enough there to make it worthwhile.