Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

From a Land Down Under

The Clean
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Bailter Space; Alec Bathgate; The Chills; The Clean; David Kilgour; Chris Knox; Tall Dwarfs
Albums: Wammo (BS); Gold Lamé (AB); Submarine Bells (Chills): Unknown Country (Clean); Anthology (Clean); David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights (DK); Songs of You & Me (CK); Yes!! (CK); 3EPs (TD)
Source: Bought used (BS, Clean, DK, CK); bought new (Chills, TD)

Back in junior/high school, I scoffed at the kids who bought their clothes by the label. To my way of thinking, draping yourself in Calvin Klein or Benetton or something like that just showed a lack of imagination – where’s the personal stamp in picking something based only on the name on the label?

Noble thoughts, to be sure, but at the time I thoroughly missed the irony inherent in my own label-driven choices: if a band was on SST or Dischord, for example, what more did you need to know? Later on, I would rely on Teenbeat, Matador, Merge (and, retroactively, Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse) and other labels whose bands didn’t really sound alike, but had logos that might as well have been the music-nerd Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval.

In the mid-late 1980s, one of the labels of distinction was Flying Nun, run out of New Zealand. The sheer volume of amazing music that emerged from the antipodean nunnery seems barely plausible: The Clean (and all of its side projects), Chills, Straitjacket Fits, Tall Dwarfs, Verlaines etc. They didn’t all necessarily have a common sound (though it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the NZ Ministry of Education put the Velvet Underground on the national curriculum), but it was often pretty easy to pick the Flying Nun bands out in a blindfold test. There was a kind of just-polished rawness, melodies that tugged against the chugging music, and a willingness to experiment with (but not reject out of hand) the way a poppish-rock song should sound.

The Chills, Tall Dwarfs and Straitjacket Fits were my first introduction to the label, and I never really looked back; to this day, I can’t help thinking Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Mariannne” sounds dreadfully weak up against SF’s reverby cover of the tune on Hail. The best part is how little it can sound like any of these bands is doing – Tall Dwarfs/Chris Knox/Alec Bathgate can sound willfully weird, but also like all of the Beatles at once, and no one would blame a pair of ears for just hearing a Velvety garage-pop band when listening to The Clean, but there’s something so endearing and, dare I say it, special about the band. “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” goes on for nearly six minutes, and I’ve never failed to be disappointed when it ends way too soon.

SISOSIG? This is a big pile, and there’s nothing to cut from The Beast here. Some of my favorites (Yo La Tengo, Mac McCaughn, et al) claim these bands as guiding lights, and there’s no doubting it. From Bailter Space’s swirling noise-pop to Submarine Bells’ almost heartbreakingly beautiful love songs (up to and including the couplet, “Effloresce and deliquesce/Carefree sparkling effervesce”), this is underground rock music of a singular distinction, and instead of thinking about getting rid of any, I really should be pledging to listen to it more regularly.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What Else?

Derek Bailey
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Derek Bailey; Peter Brötzmann
Albums: Play Backs (DB); Nipples (PB); Fuck de Boere (PB)
Source: Promo

It’s considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, especially the recently deceased, but I don’t think Derek Bailey would mind me saying that I am more than a little confounded by him. Same thing goes for Peter Brötzmann, though he is very much still alive. Both of them made/make noise-driven jazz of the very highest order, and both can be nearly impossible to listen to.

I have first-hand experience of both of those sides of Bailey. On two separate occasions I saw him play at Tonic: once, when he was centered by the ace rhythm section of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston, Bailey’s seemingly counterintuitive string-scraping atonalities created an ugly beauty that bypassed the brain and went straight to somewhere far deeper; the other time, in duet with drummer Susie Ibarra, he was so abstractly unfocused that the semi-ordered tapping of rain on the club’s skylight (which was both musical and drowned out the music a bit) created an audible rush of coherent joy in the room.

In both instances, Bailey was being true to his singular muse, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can think to pay to an artist. Even when he wasn’t hitting, it was clear that Bailey was digging deep into something, and the fact that he was willing to fail makes the successes, to my mind, all the more laudable. In other words, anyone can learn to play a pretty note, and Bailey knew how to play them so well that he stripped them away and asked, “What else?” I suspect he didn’t find a fully satisfactory answer before his recent death in December 2005, and I’d also guess that he was just fine with that.

Brötzmann’s pretty much in the same camp, and the aggressively large ensembles he put together for Nipples and Fuck de Boere include a young Bailey on really, really noisy/atonal guitar. (Un)Popular wisdom says that 1968’s Machine Gun (recorded just before Nipples) is his magnum opus, but I really think I’m just fine with these two, thank you. Each disc features a bunch of forward/free-thinking musicians constantly and consistently going for it, which can either put you off balance or put you off your lunch. It’s even harder to digest than the Brötzmann/Sharrock/Laswell/Shannon Jackson group, Last Exit, which JP and I agreed was pretty much the most unlistenable noise we’d heard up to that point in 1992. We also agreed that its surface of unlistenability was part of the charm.

Context, then, becomes enormously important in music like this. Bailey’s context on Play Backs is more in line with the Tacuma/Weston show than the night with Ibarra and the rainstorm. Each track has a rhythm “back” created by a different artist, including indie rockers John Herndon and Bundy K. Brown; fellow experimental-noiseniks Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke and John French; and even music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. Bailey then plays along with the backing track. Taking inspiration from a pre-recorded track that cannot, by its nature, bend to his whims. The results are fairly intriguing – noisy and often a little unhinged, but also interesting and occasionally enjoyable. It's music that speaks well of the inclination to sidestep beauty while also viewing the sublime with some skepticism – positions Bailey and Brötzmann stuck to with unflagging dedication.

SISOSIG? I think Play Backs and Nipples should stick around. I’ll admit that I don’t listen to them much, but I do dip in every now and then, and they fill a historical/collection niche that I suspect would be noticeable in their absence. Fuck de Boere is a live take of the tracks that would be studio-fied as Machine Gun, and at the risk of branding myself a bit of a troglodyte, I just don’t get it (or at least I get it less than the other disc). I can make the argument for having some of this kind of thing, but not a ton of it.