DIVING BLINDLY INTO THE CAVERN OF MY RECORD COLLECTION
Entry 1: The Random 10
DOVES Lost Souls (2000)
From the literal ashes of the house music collective known as Sub Sub, came Doves. While working in mostly experimental dance club music, they arrived to their studio one morning to find it had burned to the ground. So I suppose Doves was the phoenix that rose from those ashes. That most of you have never heard of this band is through no fault of your own. I picked up their first album, “Lost Souls”, in 2000 when it was released. I can’t tell you how I happened upon it (most likely too much time on music blog sites). To this day, this album resonates with me completely. And it’s the music and the mood it creates that paints such a visual picture for me. The soundscape is lavishly decorated with reverb drenched guitars and vocals. This album is the soundtrack to fall and winter on the shores of Northern England. It’s moody, massive, and it’s absolutely perfect from start to finish. I rarely skip any tracks as it is so perfectly ordered – plus they had the nerve to release a first album, opening with a four and a half minute instrumental track. That takes some serious balls. And it works perfectly, even now, 17 years after it’s release. Blissful, melancholy, uplifting, lolling adrift in a sea of peaceful chaos. Masterful.
BRYAN FERRY In Your Mind (1977)
In 1977, Bryan Ferry was still leading the inimitable Roxy Music into musical history. But that’s a story unto itself. To those who only discovered Bryan Ferry in the 1980s with albums like Bete Noir, you are so misguided. In 1977, Ferry released his first solo effort, alongside his releases with Roxy Music.
The album ‘In Your Mind’ absolutely kills from start to finish. Only 8 tracks, but each one raw, visceral, with all that warbly vocal work of which I never tire. It probably reminds me most, production and style-wise, of Roxy’s ’75 release “Siren”, most especially with tracks like “She Sells”. Ferry assembled a top notch studio band for this effort, a total bad ass rock album, if ever there was one.Yes, some of the Roxy crew joined in the fun – Phil Manzanera on guitar, studio wizard Chris Spedding (who also appeared on the classic “Nilsson Schmilsson” and it’s follow up in ’72), and John Wetton on bass (also a driving force of King Crimson and the unfortunate Asia).
8 tracks of perfectly orchestrated Ferry tunes, sick guitar riffs, women backing gang vocals; it pure mid 70’s rock as it should be. Standout tracks for me were the opener “This Is Tomorrow” and the last track on side 1, “Love Me Madly Again” (at 7:36, it cooks with unbelievable hooks from start to finish).
THE MINUTEMEN Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
In 1984, I picked up a copy of “Musician” magazine, because it featured a cover story on Joe Jackson, one of my earlier musical obsessions. Somewhere buried in a section of minuscule album reviews, there was a photo of this record, “Double Nickels On the Dime” (trucker slang for driving the speed limit) by a band called The Minutemen. The only thing I remembered about the review was that they mentioned that there were 45 (!) songs on this double LP, and a quote from bassist Mike Watt, which read, “We can’t give people one song to live their lives to. But we CAN give them a whole shitload of songs!” Needless to say, I bought the cassette on the spot.
Though for many, it was the Clash, the Ramones, or even the Sex Pistols that defined punk rock. Hell no. This, to me, was the only band that mattered in punk rock, and remains so to this day. Beginning with “Three Car Jam” which is literally the three band members simultaneously starting their car engines, to celebrating songs like “A Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “Jesus & Tequila”, “This Ain’t No Picnic”…their motto “we jam econo” came to define their spirit and their direction. The difference here was that these dudes from San Pedro could play- really play, and really well. Covering ground that delved deep from all out noise, to funk, to free jazz, to spoken word, punk to me became whatever you wanted it to be.
Years later, replaced my then worn out cassette with the double LP (which had 3 songs not included on the cassette – cool!) To this day, it eclipses just about anything deemed punk rock. If your version of punk begins with the Dead Kennedys (good start), but leads to Blink 182 (oops, wrong turn), then you really don’t know a damn thing about punk rock.
GREYBOY Freestylin’ (1989; Ubiquity 1993)
Bet you didn’t see this coming. Over the last decade or so, I have come to develop a deep respect and admiration for those that create beats, cut and loop live performances, and arrange ‘songs’ to their liking. It is a truly masterful skill that has really become an art form, almost separate from Hip Hop. That said, this record from Greyboy is about as masterful as it gets. Enlisting some of the west coast’s best jazz players, including Harold Todd (tenor sax and flute), Marc Antoine (guitar), Karl Denson (tenor sax), and Gary Wing (drums), Greyboy invited them in to the studio, let them do what they do best, but playing along to his tapes and loops, meandering through their own give and take improvisational journeys. Then he gets to work, cutting and arranging their performances into these brilliant and masterfully sequenced tunes. From the moment the needle first dropped on this slab of vinyl, my head started bobbing, and did not stop ’til the runoff groove on side 2.
It’s an album that seems at first glance, a jazz record; but is it? The way it swings and throbs, it could easily be considered groovy R&B. It’s adventurous, smooth, and altogether funky as shit. Though listed as the genre ‘Acid Jazz’, it truly defies labels. Originally release in 1989, it was reborn on Ubiquity Records, and 1993 never knew what hit it.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN The Life Pursuit by Belle And Sebastian (2006)
I’m certain that Belle and Sebastian are most recognized as the “twee-pop” sounding Scottish band whose earlier album, “The Boy With the Arab Strap” gave birth to the band Arab Strap a short while later. And though much of their earlier work is a gentle rollick through the pastoral countryside, it’s with “The Life Pursuit that the band really comes into it’s own with strong, catchy hooks, much more layered and interesting instrumentation, with a definite classic soul bent. You heard smatterings of those ideas brewing on the prior release, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”, but the drums came much more to the fore, horns appeared, guitars and vocals turned up. I liken it to when Michael Stipe’s vocals and lyrics became audibly recognizable as actual words. Perhaps in not such a contrasting way, but similar.
I love everything about this record: the music style, the braver lyrical content, the formidable rhythm section that this band had become from years of touring. And now, the velvet fog curtain that had shrouded them in quiet, allowed all this blissed out multicolored pop to emerge. Springtime came, and Belle and Sebastian tromped through their neighbor’s gardens, picking up the most prized and colorful blooms imaginable.
ELVIS COSTELLO and THE ATTRACTIONS Get Happy!! (1980)
For anyone that knows me, even scarcely, knows of my eternal worship of all things Costello. To select one album was difficult, as I could (and might) dedicate an entire piece just to his records. But I maintained composure, and chose “Get Happy!!” Why? It’s fucking brilliant. It showcases this band at it’s absolute pinnacle of a tightly grooving live band, in step and in charge. A mere collection of 20 songs on a single LP, this record was a throwback to the days of the 2:30 single that was necessary for early pop radio airplay. It was also the first release featuring a cover of another artist’s song (Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”), and showcases the genius that was the Attractions – in my mind, truly the hardest working band in show business. They were tight, they were exciting, innovative, and just clever enough for Elvis’ lyrical “chainsaw through a dictionary” writing approach. This was also a time when Elvis and the boys were attempting to rid the world of it’s problems with alcohol…by attempting to consume it all. That said, these tracks contain all the visceral fury of punk rock, filtered through STAX arrangements. And another record that is perfect from start to finish (and that’s something even I cannot honestly say about all of Elvis’ albums).
WILCO Sky Blue Sky (2007)
First I need to offer deep thanks to my friend Josh Bickford, who single-handedly made me a Wilco fan. After offering me a copy of “Summerteeth” to begin, I was hooked.
Though genius guitarist Nels Cline joined Wilco in 2004, first appearing on their 2005 release,”Kicking Television (live)” album, his first studio appearance was here, on “Sky Blue Sky”. For me, this was a transforming moment, taking Wilco from being an amazing to to one of legendary status. Everything now made sense. Melodies were honed and more distinct, guitar lines became meandering story lines rather than blissed-out noise or leads for the sake of leads.
For me, the pinnacle of this album is ‘Impossible Germany’. It is so perfectly crafted from start to finish, offering up a dictionary’s-worth of lyrical wonder, sections that flowed like a gentle brook one to another, almost unnoticed, and perhaps one of the most perfect guitar lead lines ever crafted. Nels Cline is one of only two guitar players I’ve ever witnessed that I wished would lead longer. (The other is Richard Thompson). Tweedy has really matured and honed his writing abilities, even more so hear, allowing more of the guitar gymnastics to Cline, focusing on his lyrics and his delivery. Tweedy is no shrinking violet when it comes to a ripping solo or fill, mind you. But Nels Cline transports me somewhere altogether new and beautiful.
XTC English Settlement (1982)
Andy Partridge and his band of Swindon-based noisemakers to me have always been the “bar” when it came to true modern pop music. Alongside contemporaries, like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and more recently, Jeff Tweedy and Colin Meloy, this is how I’ve always imagined pop music should be, rather than the festering slag-heap of oozing pustule-inducing, cacophonous verbal diarrhea is has become. (Too harsh?)
Where XTC’s earlier albums might be considered a more angular and fired-up maelstrom, this album is a more gentle chug through the countryside within the car of a gentle steam engine train on a trip to nowhere in particular. Still, underneath it’s lush beauty, there lurks a cauldron of darkness and mayhem, including songs like “No Thugs in Our House” which featured prominently on XTC’s debut on the BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” live music show (similar to the American “Austin City Limits”, or the current BBC offering, “Later: with Jools Holland”. Also, diving into deep literary references, and sublime sensory overload with tracks like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason and the Argonauts”, it’s songs like these that show a direct historical timeline to bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Bell and Sebastian, and The Decemberists. I fell madly and deeply in love with this record and with this band. I discovered it a few years later as I was still a lunatic high schooler, overloading myself no arena-sized “testosterock”, as I remember it. Still, among the entirety of the XTC catalog, it is among the top 3, occasionally exchanging places with “Skylarking” or “Black Sea”, depending on the day (kind of like deciding whether I prefer ‘Revolver’ or ‘Rubber Soul’; it depends on the day).
This is pop music brilliance in the combination of it’s simplicity, it lush orchestration, it’s dynamic range, and it’s overall breadth of material. To me the Dukes of Swindon are truly the crown Princes of pop music as it was intended to exist.
QUANTIC The 5th Exotic (2001)
Will Holland, known more by his pseudonym Quantic, creates beautiful, spacey, danceable, groovy music. Through the filters of his library-of-music brain, his nimble digits, and his abilities not only with buttons and switches, but with real percussion instruments, Quantic creates truly beautiful art here. This was the first of his that I discovered from his then record label, Tru Thoughts. Rather than fall into the category of his contemporaries, but simply finding a groove, dropping a vocal sliver here and there, and calling that a record, like Greyboy, he finely crafts songs; these are pieces with dynamic flow, with adventure, story telling, and moments that make you question whether lyrical content is even necessary. If it is, well, it hardly needs to play a greater role than that of punctuation, or transition.
But Holland is not simply a DJ. He is a gifted musician, with guitar, double bass, piano, organ, sax, and the aforementioned percussion. Originally from Bewdly, Worcestershire, he spent over seven years in Colombia, soaking up cumbia, salsa, bossa nova, before permanently moving to New York City, bringing in elements of classic jazz and funk. Regardless of the moniker under which he releases a record (Quantic, The Quantic Soul Orchestra, The Limp Twins) what you will get is the amalgamation of the world set into a spinning vinyl disc. Your passport will be stamped full by the time you’ve reached the end of side one. This album hooked me, and truly made me understand what it took to be a true DJ; a true master of cutting, looping, and assembling. Quantic stands among the very few greats in this genre, alongside J Dilla and Madlib. Will Holland continues to be a musical force of nature.
AMBULANCE LTD LP (2004)
This is the only other album included in this random selection that also begins with an instrumental (and is, like the Doves record, this band’s debut). This is the band that should have happened more, and kept happening. Alas, only a follow-up EP, New English, was released two years following. Then…nothing. My limited understanding, the band had a major fallout with their label, TVT Records. Since then, principle writer and singer, Marcus Congleton, has released two other albums as part of the duo Drug Cabin, both in 2014.
All that aside, this album is one of those rare few that exists as a single work, in my opinion. Ever more than the others included in this list, I find it nearly impossible to skip a track once I begin listening. From beginning to end, it equal parts Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and the Kinks, all together at some sonic tea party of joy. From the song that got them a modicum of recognition (“Stay Where You Are”) through the beautiful yet sorrowful “Ophelia”, to the jaunty gallop of “Young Urban”, that this album was made, and that all of these songs were produced and released side-by-side on the same is nothing short of a musical miracle. I remember going through a moment when deciding on a particular guitar to purchase; though others of my favorites had played it before, seeing Congleton playing an old Jazzmaster live on David Letterman totally sold me. This album is perfect. If you decide to purchase a copy, and do not agree, I will buy it from you, because then you obviously don’t deserve it.
WILL SESSIONS The Elmatic Instrumentals (2011)
I was traveling in Vermont a few years ago, and happened upon a couple of really cool record stores. OK; not so much “happened upon” as “found after tons of research before arriving in Burlington, but WHATEVER! This record is a recording of live performances of the music from Nas’ 1994 relase, Illmatic, still considered to be among the best of what Hip Hop has offered the world. This, however, is not simply a release of the instrumental “version” of the record, minus the vocals. This is a complete re-recording, with a (fittingly) all Detroit crew of musicians, under the band name Will Sessions, a staple of the legendary Motor-City Funk Night shows. Prior, and since, this band has backed some of the most legendary Hip Hop artists on stage, including Black Milk, Mayor Hawthorne, and Slum Village, to drop a few.
“The Elmatic” recreates each track in its entirety, reinventing it through the genius of these celebrated musicians. Will Sessions is headed by pianist and trumpeter, Sam Beaubien, along with a host of Detroit’s best jazz, r&b, and funk musicians. Simply put by writer James Bell of the Daily Californian, “If Miles Davis made gangster music, it would definitely sound like this.” I couldn’t have said it better, nor improve upon that. I’ll simply state that this album has become a textbook as a part of my regular bass practice. I will often just let this album run, attempting to hone my own groove chops through these powerful instrumentals. It is mesmerizing, compelling, and as important as the album that originally inspired it.
27 January, 2017
Entry 2: The Instrumentals
My first entry got me thinking about albums that are solely communicating through instrumental music (with perhaps a sampled vocal here or there, but not as a centerpiece). So begins my next entry.
THIEVERY CORPORATION Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi (1997)
Without much surprise, I decide to begin with DC’s hometown heroes, Thievery Corporation. Though I discovered them later in their careers, I ended up unpacking their discography in a fairly random order. This was most likely the third or fourth album of theirs that I purchased; alongside The Richest Man in Babylon, this is definitely my favorite of their records. From the old-school vibe of the artwork and title, to the jazz-laden, beat heavy grooves contained, this record brims with soul and R&B, even inducing one to move to the more downtempo tracks. This album sets the perfect mood for long autumn evenings, late sunsets, and lounging with friends, talking about nothing at all, laughing at the ridiculousness of life on our planet. An absolutely masterful and soulful record-so much so that it could ahve been released just as easily on Blue Note Records and easily found it’s home among the masters.
J DILLA Donuts (2006)
To say I came late to the game with Dilla would be an understatement. This album was released in the same year that the world lost Dilla. He apparently had suffered from serious kidney issues, for which he had been receiving dialysis, until a heart attack took his life.
Biography aside, it’s perhaps this man that is responsible for what has become the true sound of what “Detroit Hustle” is today. Skilled as an artisan with his sophisticated edits and select “deep cut” choices of tremendous material, J Dilla is still at the top of his game, beyond his life here on Earth. Still canonized by the true greats of Hip-Hop and R&B. Words fail me to describe the depth of musicality just within this record alone, much less the rest of his still growing catalog (thanks to his family).
This record illustrates the pinnacle of what a true “DJ” can accomplish; Dilla set the bar high, and only a scant few come close. A true master of the art of Hip-Hop grooves, J Dilla’s essence has never been encapsulated so perfectly as with this record.
YESTERDAYS NEW QUINTET Angles Without Edges (2001)
Let’s begin by saying that the “band” exists only in the genius that is Madlib. Though fictional names don the back of the album, they do not connect to any living soul. Rather, Madlib (producer, bear creator, multi-instrumentalist) IS the band, playing all the instruments, creating backgrounds for his fictional cast of characters, including such “notable” players as: Joe McDuphrey, Malik Flavors, Ahmad Miller, Monk Hughes, and Otis Jackson, Jr. Ever the inventive genius, Madlib continued, Wu-Tang style, releasing a “solo” EP for each of these players from 2002-2007, all via Stones Throw Records.
This is a work of genius. A master jazz musician, with pro ability whether slinging a Fender Rhodes through it’s paces, an upright bass, guitar, trap drums-it doesn’t matter. He does it all with style, grace, and ease in his recorded performances, then taking all to the editing block creating a world of danceable, groovy rhythmic masterpieces. He did go on to have the Quintet record several other releases, including Stevie in 2002, a tribute to Mr. Wonder himself.
However, this album is overflowing with all original downtempo, jazz-soul fusion that must be heard to be believed. I can listen to this record on repeat for days at a time, and still find something new to discover. Someday I’ll include an entry dedicated to Madlib and all the monikers and partners he has created with, revealing a dirth of original material as diverse as any record collection out there.
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)
Surprise! Not all modern instrumental music is cutting or looping or editing. Some of it is created with a cast of live musicians (often referred to as “bands”). I’ve chosen this particular EITS record as it was such a refreshing noise when it came out. This is to instrumental music what Bob Mould’s guitars were to punk rock via Husker Du.
This album is pure catharsis. I had a chance to see Explosions in the Sky open for The Flaming Lips a few years back. I did not know what to expect. I knew what the Lips were/are capable of on stage, but Explosions were an unknown. It was absolutely purely beautiful sonic fury. No vocals at all – not even spoken word. Just SIZE. Everything was massive: guitars, drums, all of it. But not free form noise. There was structure, there were dynamics, there were obvious transitions where a middle 8 or a chorus might appear, there were repeated structures at intervals that implied. And this album holds up, even with their most recent releases, this still comes at you with an insistence, demanding to be heard, but without the feeling that you’ve been pummeled by a ball-peen hammer.
THE MERCURY PROGRAM From the Vapor of Gasoline (2000)
In 2003, I took a year off between teaching theatre arts to return to becoming a full-time student in order to earn my license to also teach middle and high school level English. (As an aside, I LOVED going back to school; in fact, I’d go back full time in a heartbeat should anyone out there want to foot the bill!)
Moving on…I was introduced to the Mercury Program via a mix CD, created especially for me by one of my classmates while I was back in school. She and I took several classes together, and shared a fondness for a lot of the same music. So we had exchanged CD mixes; hers containing the brilliant track “Nazca Lines of Peru” from this very record. In addition to the typical pop/rock lineup of drums, bass, guitars, keys, there was also a vibraphonist-very prominently on display-through most of that track, and much of the entire album, and ones that followed. Not so much a typical rock instrumental album, but not so experimental that it became inaccessible. Rather, the record dips its toes into many genres, all the while allowing each song to pick it’s structure. From this initial release, their growth as musicians moved exponentially upward and outward. Unlike Explosions in the Sky, these tunes are more cerebral and intimate, still full of dynamic shifts and changes in energy. Similar to EITS, this isn’t “jam band noodling” either. These are instrumental pieces, much in the same way that a jazz album might include, but without the structure of “now it’s the piano solo section.” As much Medeski, Martin & Wood as it is American Analog Set and Death Cab for Cutie, The Mercury Program sets its own course with a unique voice, and the chops to match. This record is an unparalleled perfect example of pop music sans lyrics. You’ll understand within a single listen everything that the band is attempting to say.
SKALPEL Konfusion (2005)
How I discovered this record, I may not ever remember. And a little descriptive information might tell the story. The duo that is SKALPEL includes Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo from Warsaw, Poland. Their records, most especially Konfusion, combines their ridiculous talent for creating groovy and distinctive Hip-Hop beats, intertwined with samples of Polish jazz records of the 60s and 70s. To respond to your question: Yes, it does work, and wonderfully well.
More strangely, this album being their sophomore release, was also the penultimate release through their label Ninjatune. It would be another nine years until they released another record (Transit), this time on their own label, PlugAudio, in 2014.
SKALPEL’s first release, a self-titled EP (2003), literally sold out upon it’s release date (remember, in 2003, there were few digital stores selling music, most especially for unknown duos from Poland). The recording I listed here is among not only their best, but perhaps among the best there is in the world of innovative Hip-Hop beatmakers. It is so immensely listenable, overwhelmingly groove-laden, with enough hooks to bring even the most timid of dancers to their feet, that it truly deserves more recognition worldwide, to attempt to match the mythical level of status it reached in Warsaw. This is a record with which to be reckoned. This is inspiring, uplifting, and downright funky-ass shit.
LEMON JELLY Lemonjelly.ky (2000)
Before continuing, yes, I have purchased records recorded after the mid-2000s. As the title of this post states, it’s a random list of records. So deal with it. This has been a public service announcement.
Moving on; to say Lemon Jelly is/was trippy would be an understatement. This is pure uninhibited psychedelic music, as filtered through the demented minds of UK musicians Fred Deakin and Nick Franglen. They released three massive recordings, garnering them a contract with XL Recordings, allowing them several more releases until an extended hiatus until 2008.
This album will literally bend your brain, contort any semblance of a train of thought, and leave you shaking your head. You won’t know what hit you, but whatever it was, you will definitely put this player on repeat again…and again, et al. Do yourself a favor and wrap your ears around this disc, then hold on; Lemon Jelly will gently hold your hand through this head trip. You’ll be a better person for it.
LITTLE PEOPLE Mickey Mouse Operation (2006)
This self-produced debut release by Little People (aka Laurent Clerc) is described best on his website:
I am little people.
I make downtempo electronic music.
It’s part beats, bleeps and real live instrumentation.
This is my site.”
And that this album cover is one of the most freakin’ adorable one I’ve ever seen is an understatement. This album is fun, bouncy, bubbly, and definitely not endorsed by Fisher Price. I unashamedly love it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
KERO ONE Early Believers Instrumentals (2009)
Straight-up soulful jazzy grooves from this Korean phenom. From age 6, when he first heard tracks by the inimitable Boogie Down Productions on the radio, he got hooked, and later grew a massive record collection. He has become the top downloaded, album-selling, beat/groove creating army-of-one (no pun intended) and has remained there ever since. This particular record was partnered with a Korean language version sold simultaneously. But more to the point – this record oozes groove, chilled out R&B, jazzy smooth transitions, upright and downtempo more to the point. From the Brazilian tinged “Bossa Soundcheck” through the breezy California-inspired “Let’s Just Be Friends”, regardless of whether you experience this instrumental version of the album, or it’s original release with some heavy-hitters of rap, you will be drawn in by it’s playfulness, it’s vibe (which is the only constant you can expect), and it’s brilliant level of production. Another true artist within his filed, Kero One (aka Kero Uno) continues to be an influential force; in the over-crowded world of “I-own-an-AKAI-MPC-so-I-call-myself-a-producer”, Kero One is a craftsman and deserves every bit of legend that follows his work. Start with this record just to immerse yourself in the unadulterated creation, the continue to the rap version(s) and you’ll be hooked. Groove on, Kero One.
THE BAD PLUS Suspicious Activity? (2005)
Despite classification in typical record stores or streaming services, to label The Bad Plus as “jazz” is simply missing the point. Yes, this is a highly trained trio of musicians, in a piano, drums, double bass “jazz” lineup, but that’s where it ends. Though I’ll be unable to capture anything remotely accurate to describe the breadth and depth of the musicality of this group and it’s unbelievable discography (not all instrumentals, mind you) I’ll brave on.
This particular release is instrumental and contains mostly original material, save for their cover of the theme from the film Chariots of Fire (anyone remember Vangelis? anyone care to?). Working with producer Tchad Blake*, they produced this monster of an album, just before parting ways with their record label, Columbia Jazz in 2006. Just experiencing “Prehensile Dream” right into “Anthem for the Earnest” illustrates the power, vision, and undeniable expanse of talent within these three instrumental hoodlums. On other releases, they conquered the likes of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Ornette Coleman, Aphex Twin…yes, I know. WTF? And they pull it off with such original interpretations, that they each stand on their own as stand alone art. Since parting ways with Columbia, they’ve released 8 more albums, often collaborating with some of their favorite artists (Joshua Redman, Wendy Lewis, etc.) and have served as artists in residence at Duke University. These guys took all the rules of jazz, learned them, interpreted them, finally setting them ablaze as they set forth on their singularly trodden path to sonic nirvana. Just clamp your ears around this one and you’ll know what I mean.
*Tchad Blake: record producer, who has also worked with Pearl Jam, Arctic Monkeys, Tom Waits, Brazilian Girls, U2, The Black Keys…yeah, that’s the guy with whom they produced this record!
30 May 2017
Entry 3: Punk
What once was the ultimate DIY in the pre-interwebs days became a marketing gambit. This is the one time where I’ll play the “back in my day” card because it was better music with better intentions.
THE MINUTEMEN Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
Yes, this is the second list within which this magnificent duo of vinyl slabs appear; but this record is deserving. For me, punk rock was DIY to it’s core. Write, record, and perform your music the way you want it to sound, communicating your ideas, and getting it into the hands of others by any means necessary. During the predominantly angry, loud, and fast birth of the Southern California punk rock scene, the Minutemen were an anomaly. Writing music that happily wore it’s influences out front, as challenging to interpret and digest as it was to witness, with all the ferocity of punk rock, combined with the “nastiness” of funk, the bombast of rock, and the lyrical content akin to anything found in “The Art of War”, this record marked a defining moment of music for me; late to the punk rock “scene”, this record became my initial map through the world of hardcore and the original alternative scenes.
45 songs on two discs, this record took this little trio from San Pedro, CA from obscurity to legendary overnight. A new bar was set, and it was impossible for others to equal, though some came awfully close. Only a year after it’s release did the world lose the incredible poetic genius of bandleader, D. Boon, who met with tragedy when the axle on his van split apart on a crowded California highway, as he rode with his girlfriend to a tour date. Even today, a musical monster of his own, when asked “What kind of bass player are you?”, Mike Watt quickly answers, “I’m D. Boon’s bass player.” This from the guy that has toured the world with Iggy Pop, led bands backed up by Eddie Vedder, Pat Smear, and Dave Grohl, and is still the greatest influence on Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Now that’s something.
HUSKER DU Zen Arcade (1984)
As Brian Wilson created and released Pet Sounds as a musical reply to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and what later led to Brian’s hole-digging and bed-dwelling days, it so seemed that Husker Du was doing the same in 1984, releasing Zen Arcade shortly after the Minutemen offered Double Nickels on the Dime to the world. In reality, these bands could not have been more supportive of each other, and musically so unrelated. If you consider Double Nickels a musical call-to-arms/dispel-what-you think-you-know-of-music, then the mission of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade must have been to drench your ears with all the collected distortion of the world, all the while rinsing and squeezing your brain out like a sopping wet hand towel. Equal parts blitzkrieg and bliss, walls of sound cascade throughout, defying the listener to guess where some songs begin and end. Artistically, this was a statement; Husker Du were not only blazing fast distorted power chords; they could be composer-like at times, using noise, venom, and lyric jabs to communicate rage, jealousy, determination, and outrage at the world of the mid-1980s. Signatures abound, including Bob Mould’s sheets of layered fuzzed-out guitars, and Grant Hart’s drumming pulse that jettisoned forward anything in front of it. Yet all the while, the tensions that were within the band’s fold were coming to a head.
Though not their most commercially successful record, it allowed them into creative territory that eventually spawned icons like New Day Rising, Flip Your Wig, and Candy Apply Grey (their introduction to a major label)This record, and those that followed, might be considered the blueprint which later birthed the more refined and controlled pop punk like The Descendants, ALL, Bad Religion, Green Day, and eventually the Foo Fighters (Grohl does lyrical justice in the Foo Fighters song Time and Time Again when he sings, “I’m a new day rising.”) Bob Mould continues to this day to produce relevant and powerful records, all the while still showing his stripes as the Minneapolis punk rock flag-bearer that unleashed Husker Du onto the world.
DEAD KENNEDYS In God We Trust, Inc. (1981)
It amazes (and frightens) me how relevant all these songs from the original punk explosion are today in 2017. And this slab from the crew who created Alternative Tentacles Records is no different. With all the insane bravado of networks baring the seedy underbelly of the world daily through our various screens, it stands to reason that songs like “Moral Majority” and “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off!” are still poignant and as valid as they ever were. This was the Kennedys second release, close on the heels of their classic Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables LP in 1980. What else would you expect from the lineup of singer Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Fluoride, and D.H. Peligro on drums.
This album still hits hard with a massive sonic assault. It’s tongue-in-cheek audacity, sprinkled liberally with enough barbs to bait even the most passive of enemies, has only improved as it has festered with age. As stated so eloquently, “Punk ain’t no religious cult; punk means thinking for yourself” and warning the neo-Nazi fascists that “in a real fourth Reich, you’ll be the first to go…unless you think!”
Re-released along with the follow up from a few years later, the infamous Plastic Surgery Disasters (1985), the guitars are brutally loud, the band is tight, and Jello spits vitriol with this menacingly brilliant band from San Francisco can.
BAD BRAINS Bad Brains (1982)
I imply nothing superlative as I confidently state that BAD BRAINS is among the most respected and influential punk bands of all time. Originally forming in 1975 under the moniker Mind Power, they began as a jazz-fusion outlet, not unlike other bands of that era like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. A few years in, with HR stepping up as lead vocalist, and after hearing new records from the Sex Pistols, the Dickies, the Dead Boys, and the Ramones, they moved into a new direction. Adopting Rastafarianism early on gave most of their music a very positive vibe; along with the group being comprised of all African-Americans, set them apart and lifted them above the fray. As frontman HR was known to throw himself into the PA stacks and amplifiers, inciting near riot-level mosh pits, they were soon “Banned in DC”, relocating to New York City. After self-releasing their first single “Pay to Cum”, they were discovered by Ron St. Germain and signed to ROIR to release their first “cassette-only” record, the self-titled one pictured at the left.
This record is as visceral as it is pulsating with breezy thump. It is a blueprint of a spiritual quest for knowledge, all the while attempting to find ones place in the world. The lyrics range from dark to the inspiring. The Brains move seamlessly from thrash-speed punk blitzkrieg to dubby reggae with all the nuances in tact. These men are masters of their instruments and their craft. There is no doubt of the legacy that this magnificent record, however “lo-fi” in it’s production value, represents what had become a new and original voice that defined punk rock and gave it hope for the future.
THE CLASH Give ’em Enough Rope (1978)
Some argue that the order of tracks that appear on any record (known as ‘sequencing’) can make or break the listening experience. If that is truly the case, then this record by “the only band that matters” is epic from the opening strains of “Safe European Home”. The second release after their self-titled debut in 1977, firmly planted into terra firma exactly where the Strummer & Co. came from and where they were headed. This was no “one-hit wonder” band. This was a band that questioned everything, including themselves, and broadcast it loud and clear. The true thinkers punk band, THE CLASH knew that to attract the audience, one had to dangle smart, poignant lyrics with powerful production and strong hooks.
The album contained a few surprises, including the almost sugary-sweet arrangement of “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, which rolls along with a rockabilly swagger of which Mr. Presley himself would be quite proud. With Topper Headon providing a true backbeat, and the occasional appearance of piano, this showcased the band as something quite beyond the expectations of the ever-burgeoning punk audience. There were no safety pins piercing noses, there were fewer public “shenanigans” than those of their contemporaries. Yes, they were in it for the long haul, and managed to produce some of the most inventive and powerful music ever created in rock and roll.