Thursday, March 23, 2006

My 80's: Shriekback

"Lined Up" (1983, from the LP, Care)

One of the most incredibly visceral moments of my life was the first time I ever slipped foam earpads over my ears and listened to a record album (in my case, it was New Order's Power, Corruption & Lies) on a personal stereo cassette player. I, of course, did not have the luxury of owning brand-name personal electronics as a teenager. I did not have, for instance, a Sony Walkman. No, the most I could coax out of my parents was a Panasonic RX-HD10, which I dubbed the "Jogger." It was slightly heavier than a Sony Walkman, and much less sleekly-packaged, but it worked exactly the same way: insert cassette, press play, don headphones, be blown the fuck away.

Am I overstating the effect of hearing true personal stereo for the first time? I don't think so. I remember exactly where I was sitting, what I was wearing, and the way fold out cassette insert smelled like grapes and stained from the grease on my fingertips. I distinctly remember the chills I felt when I heard the guitars strumming on Tears for Fears' "Pale Shelter" inside my head (The Hurting was the second cassette I listened to on my "Jogger"). Keep in mind that up to that point in my life, the highest audio fidelity I had ever experienced was listening to Columbia House Record Club LPs on a Radio Shack direct-drive turntable (I saved up all summer for that thing, which still works fine, and which I still hook up to my stereo from time to time) piped through an Emerson all-in-one stereo console (with a built-in record changer that sounded like shit compared to that RS beauty) I had somehow appropriated from my parents. No, man. The "Jogger" rocked my world. I was a changed man from that point on. And, I guess, you can attribute all this music blogging nonsense, and my obsession with music minutia in general, to my "Jogger" as well.

Shriekback's Care was originally one of those LPs in my collection, but it was purchased from Wherehouse Records (in what is now a very different Tiffany Plaza in Denver), not from Columbia House. I know that with certainty because Care is still in my collection, opened -- as most records I bought were -- by sliding a thumbnail along the opening, leaving the shrinkwrap (and price sticker) intact. I paid $7.99 for it, in case you were wondering.

I liked listening to Care quite a bit on the Emerson, but it wasn't until I purchased a cassette version of it (at Wax Trax, of course) and started playing it over and over and over on my "Jogger" that the album -- one that could be released today and sound completely current -- really came to life. "Lined Up" summed Shriekback up best for me: a funky, almost evil bassline, catchy multiphonic vocals, and completely baffling lyrics.

So I took it upon myself to learn those lyrics, nearly wearing out the cassette tape with my constant rewinding / playing / rewinding. I even kept a notebook as I deciphered the lyrics, as proof of my endeavors. Proof both in the notebook and, of course, I could sing the whole damned song on cue.

But nobody ever asked me to. Sigh.

Owing (one assumes) to some complicated record label legal shit, Care has never enjoyed a proper CD release. Neither, unfortunately, has the equally amazing follow-up, Jam Science, which I only ever owned on a cassette that one day got mangled, and which I have never properly heard since. Instead, most of the Shriekback songs from that era can be found on one of several compilations -- which is where the "Disco Version" of "Lined Up" I've linked to here came from. It's closest to the version that appeared on the US release of Care, distinctive in the little "rap-perlude" about two and a half minutes in ("let it fall into place, we can tie it to a tree, we can point it at you, we can make it a habit," etc.) that doesn't appear on the UK version.

Of course, I can sing along to that, too, word for word.

posted by Bill Purdy, 4:14 PM | link | 7 comments

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Perfect Storm

I enjoyed psychology classes when in college. I even entered college thinking I’d like to major in psychology and be a psychologist. That plan went to pieces for a number of reasons not the least of which was the fact I had to take Research Methodology a prerequisite for which was statistics. After my horrific showing in that class statisticians breathed a sigh of relief when they realized they had nothing to fear from me. Recognizing that psychology was no longer a viable major I still enjoyed taking classes. Go ahead, call me a dilettante.

My Junior year I took a class through the psychology department titled “Substance Abuse.” The class, contrary to popular belief, was not a “how to” guide so much as a study of the psychological and physiological components of addiction and withdrawal. (Certain individuals, who shall remain nameless, did however find my textbook particularly enlightening when it came to psilocybin and took it upon themselves to explore first-hand the veracity of claims made by the textbook’s authors.) The student-teacher ratio, like most at SLU, was pretty low - somewhere in the neighborhood of 25:1 - so you had a pretty good idea as to who your classmates were and where they tended to sit. That is to say, an absence was pretty easily noticed by both professor and student.

As a fairly typical small college town Canton has its fair share of bars. My favorite was The Hoot Owl - a dive par-excellence that may well have begun my love affair with dive bars. Located in what was years ago a train station that once served the community it was right next to train tracks. Tracks still used even today by freight trains, passenger trains having long given up the ghost to the more modern Greyhound bus service. When sitting at the bar enjoying your $1 Labatt’s Blue you could hear the whistle and feel the rumble of a passing train while neon beer signs shook on the walls. It was all part of the Hoot experience. Another part of the Hoot experience for some was to start drinking green beer at 6AM on St. Patrick’s Day. On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day 1988 at approximately 10:20 I was sitting in my Substance Abuse class. The topic of the day was alcoholism. A desk was empty. Deb was missing.

About 10 minutes into class something kind of resembling Deb burst through the classroom door. Her frizzy blond hair was more unruly than usual and her eyes were glassy and unfocused. Her ill-fitting sweatshirt was inside out and dotted with unidentifiable stains. Around her mouth, as gaudy as coral lipstick applied by a 90-year old woman in Tampa, was a tell-tale green ring. After navigating her way to her seat she noisily sat down offering her apologies to the professor who was simultaneously insulted by her interruption and amazed at his good luck for the opportunity to have a “teaching moment.” Poor Deb kept it together for all of five minutes at which point gravity took over and her head made contact with the desk. We all tried to ignore her loud snoring but it proved to be too distracting. The professor ended the lecture early that day with the agreement that we would exit the classroom as quietly as possible leaving Deb to sleep off her drunk and eventually awaken in an empty classroom - the humiliation of which was expected to keep her sober for the remainder of the semester. Or at least sober for the remainder of that semester’s lectures.

posted by MGSoden, 3:35 PM | link | 2 comments

Monday, March 13, 2006

Metric, Cat's Cradle, 3/12/2006

I was recently criticized by a particular loyal BB reader who opts not to use the "Comments" function, instead prickling me via email (about Mogwai / Growing): "too much time spent on opening act, not enough on the headliners." So, I'll warn you (him) up front: this review will suffer from exactly the same problem -- for reasons you will understand soon enough. As for his general assessment of my review-writing capabilities ("M'eh... you've written better."), he's pretty much spot-on. I never pretended to be a music writer to begin with. Not only do I possess an extremely limited music-related vocabulary, I just don't think my writing's snarky enough to acquire a loyal readership beyond the, uh let's see, three or four people who drop by here regularly. To you three or four: I suck. Deal with it. Now, read on.

You should know (if you do not already) that Emily Haines' Metric (and make no mistake, it's 100% her band) makes impeccably tight new-wave inspired pop-punk that, had it been around thirty years or so ago, would likely have been mentioned in the same breath as Blondie, Pat Benatar, and Joan Jett. As it is, now you can safely mention Metric in the same breath as, um, PJ Harvey, Morningwood, and, uh, maybe Courtney Love I guess.

Unfortunately, for all her efforts Emily Haines just doesn't have the rock star chops of the aforementioned acts. Onstage, she looks skinny (because she is) and a bit haggard. The only other time I saw her -- as a member of Broken Social Scene at Coachella -- I thought she looked even worse: skinny, haggard, and frightened as well. Onstage with Metric last night, though, she wasn't the least bit scared, projecting a ton of confidence once the music started. But as hard as she tried to rock out, those looks still betrayed her. The juxtaposition was a bit unsettling.

My friend, Andrew, agreed with me afterward: it must be humbling to be a professional musician these days -- there's absolutely no room to suck. And suck Metric does not. They ripped through about half of the new record, Live It Out, before bringing out some of the old faves from Old World Underground, Where Are You Now. It sounded so good, it could've easily been the CDs I was listening to. And that's another problem with being too good. For those same $10, you could just as easily buy one of the CDs and listen to it as many times as you want. And, as an added bonus, you won't have to jostle for elbow room with a smelly, six-foot-five coffee shop clerk, or try to glimpse the band through some tattooed guy's earlobe hoops.

Metric did save their best for last: an encore rendition of "Dead Disco" that devolved into an improvisational psychedelic freakout before it was all over fifteen or so minutes later, the impressive light kit (six stage-to-ceiling columns of multicolored computer-controlled LED banks) no doubt inducing a seizure or two in the crowd. I would have preferred more of that crazy shit than by-the-numbers renderings of album tracks, but it's not like I didn't enjoy the show. On balance, it was pretty good.

We caught a few cuts by the first band, Men, Women and Children (not an entirely accurate moniker, btw), a recent major-label signing that sounds conspicuously like The Rapture (and which would have been entirely at home in a tent at last year's Coachella, but which seemed slightly dated last night -- ah, the miniscule half life of a rock and roll trend). Not bad at all, quite competent in fact. Certainly worth checking out again and maybe paying a bit more attention to next time.

Then Islands, seven guys in white jumpsuits, hopped onstage and started to frolick through a set that... sounded awfully familiar. They had a drummer, a clarinetist, an oboist, a fiddler, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a bassist, a singer -- it was mayhem up there on stage. Confused by the familiar-sounding material (I was sure I had never heard a single track before, but it sure as hell seemed like I had), I closed my eyes and started to pace through my deep catalog of indie rock knowledge, when it hit me.

They sounded like The Unicorns! Which made a little bit of sense, since the weblink provided by Cat's Cradle took me to a shitty-looking MySpace page that explained Islands was from Montreal. And The Unicorns were from Montreal, too. And both bands did have an odd affinity for sea shanties.

Well, turns out I was right: I asked the dude selling t-shirts for them what Islands was all about, and he confirmed that Islands is Jaime Thompson and Nick Diamonds from The Unicorns (R.I.P), plus a whole bunch of other folks who seem to come and go as they please. In fact, they sound like The Unicorns evolved slightly, with a bit more cohesive structure. Like maybe they'd been listening to some old Woodentops records and something sunk in. They were also very very good. So I bought the CD, Return to the Sea (and paid an ungodly $15 for it, though I am now very glad I did).

Which, I should also point out, has not yet been released in the US and in fact will not be until April 4, at which point you should really think about buying it (I am talking to you, fellow Unicorns fan). Here's an added incentive: credited on the CD (but not appearing onstage last night, sad to say) are Tim Kingsbury, Regine Chassagne, Sarah Neufield, Pietro Amato, Richard Reed Parry, and Will Butler -- basically, everyone in The Arcade Fire except Win (proving once and for all that his shit seriously don't smell). A mashup of The Arcade Fire and The Unicorns -- a fucking Quebecois indie supergroup is what it looks (and sounds) like to me.

Islands is coming back to the Cradle next month as headliners. Chances are good I'll be there, but this time I'll be singing along. And far less confused.

posted by Bill Purdy, 9:51 AM | link | 0 comments

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mogwai, Cat's Cradle, 3/8/2006

The only other time I saw them, I remember it like this:

Late on the second night of Coachella 2004, The Cure was readying its set (not that I cared all that much, but Beth and Cross hadn't already seen them, like, three times even before Robert Smith attained his current state of corpulescence, i.e., got really really pasty and tubby, so they were quite interested; I ended up moseying over to the 2nd stage and watching a much more satisfying Le Tigre set instead) on the main stage. Some band or another (it's hard to remember exactly, but I think it was Basement Jaxx) was making a racket on the smaller outdoor stage, but even that energetic performance was drowned out by the noise coming from the tent in which Mogwai was playing.

Lit from within by the bright lights, the Mogwai tent seemed to pulse -- even from hundreds of yards away. It called to us. Cross and I made the pilgrimage across the polo grounds (leaving a tired and pregnant Beth behind to rest) and entered the back of the tent to see what was happening in there.

We saw maybe ten minutes of Mogwai's set, but I distinctly remember one thing about it in particular: the wall of sound that was being dished forth from that motley assortment of Glaswegians made my eyelashes flutter. It was exhilaratingly loud, and somehow, at the same time, utterly gorgeous. It was also too short. I vowed then to see Mogwai again if they ever toured around the Triangle.

Lo and behold, they finally came.

Craig drove up from Charlotte to meet me at the sold out show. I was sort of late (listening to the Canes lose in a shootout in Philly), and walked into the venue while the opening band, Growing, was dishing forth a sonic assault of its own.

Growing never really let up for the next half hour; two guys with the reverb cranked way up and the amps cranked even higher, looping ambient (but loud, man, fucking loud) melodies created on guitar, bass, and laptop, over and over each other in a strangely intoxicating way. Seefeel meets Fennesz, perhaps. Or maybe Vapourspace (even though they were comparatively light on the electronics [most of their sound came from a guitar and a bass guitar], Growing's sound strongly evoked mid-90's ambient electronica to my ears). But louder.

Growing's final "cut" (it's a bit hard to differentiate between one song and another, because each one blended seamlessly into the next, without pause) was their loudest, skillfully aping Mogwai's loud-soft-loud aesthetic to such a shocking degree that it literally brought the skinny guy standing in front of me (who was too macho for earplugs) to his knees, his hands clutching his ears. Had a friend of his not rushed forth with a pair of earplugs, I'd have tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the door. Or maybe dialed 911.

In between sets, I caught up with Craig, drank a couple beers, and marveled at how universally unattractive (but uncommonly polite) the crowd at Cat's Cradle shows is.

Mogwai finally took the stage. Earplugs secured firmly in my ear canals, I secured a place behind one guy who was six-foot seven, and another who was six-five. I figured they wouldn't be moving much, so I positioned myself right between them, thereby ensuring a decent view of the stage for the duration of the set: six guys with instruments, none of whom moved much. I figured even if one of the tall fellas drifted into my line of sight, I wouldn't be missing a whole lot anyway.

Mogwai was loud, but not as loud as I remembered, nor as loud as I expected. For one thing, my eyelashes never fluttered. Still, their set sounded impeccable (except on the two tracks that included vocals -- by now, Mogwai ought to know singing is not their strong suit). Several times, I just closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me. It felt nice.

The set itself was structured like one of their songs: slowly building from an almost languid beginning to nearly drowning in beautiful noise and chaos at the end. The encore was brief but loud. As soon as it was over, the band hustled off the stage and the house lights went up. It was an abrupt (but fitting) ending to my post-rock Wednesday.

posted by Bill Purdy, 10:41 AM | link | 1 comments

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My '80s: Hunters & Collectors

"Betty's Worry or the Slab" (1982, from the album The Jaws of Life)
"Throw Your Arms Around Me" (1986, from the album Human Frailty)
(Special bonus links in the Comments section!)

Some of you will remember "Rico" (real name disguised to protect the once-cool, now-lame), who choreographed a frantic air guitar routine to "The Slab" in college, his eyes a-buggin' like Roger Rabbit as he emulated Mark Seymour's growling edge-of-sanity narration, his body flying across the room like it was immune to the negative effects of blunt force trauma, his arms a-flailing in perfect synchrony with that chukka-chukka guitar bit that finishes the tune. It was all college spectacle, and like so many things at that fragile time in our lives, it was something that got better the more booze that was involved.

It was genius, that routine. It was the stuff of legend. It was better even than Tom Cruise's underwear dance in Risky Business (because Hunnas trumps Seger a million times over, and because, hey, it's Tom Cruise we're talking about).

I am sad to report, though, that Rico has since abandoned our beloved (and now, sadly, defunct) Hunters & Collectors for a life in the suburbs, raising hunting dogs and doling out child support payments. I am told he doesn't even remember the words any more, such are the depths of ubiquity to which he has fallen.

So I have done what any real fan of the greatest Australian bar band ever would have done: I stole that routine, I made it mine. I will admit I don't have the knack for pure theatricality Rico had, but my take on the classic has amused (and frightened, for I throw my body around far more carelessly and inelegantly than Rico ever did) dozens of curious bystanders. But only a select few bystanders, I am afraid, for you won't find "The Slab" in any old jukebox in any old bar. And you probably won't find it in anyone's record collection but mine.

You'll probably have to be invited into my home to see it, and I will have to get really drunk (and so, too, will you), and I will have to start playing "Bill-the-DJ" in my slightly irritating but also sort of endearing way: thirty second snippets of every song I select from a towering stack of CDs. And it will have to be no earlier than 1 a.m. when I finally queue up "The Slab." And in all likelihood someone else in the house will have gone to sleep by then, making the pleasure of cranking the volume even more guilty than it otherwise would be.

And you will gasp in astonishment when I climb up onto the nearest unstable piece of furniture, aping the call-and-response: "Hey I know it's true, but I just can't say it!" "Say it! Say it!" Then I will cock my knees and my guitar hand, spit out an angry "HUNH!" and launch myself into the air! If I have timed it right (which has nothing to do with rhythm, or musical ability, but everything to do with the amount of alcohol consumed to that point), the first chukka will begin at the exact time I hit the ground. Then, if I haven't sprained my ankle, I will strut around the room for the next minute or so, strumming my air guitar emphatically as the horn section swells loudly around us.

You will be amazed, I assure you. And you will no doubt at that moment forget Rico ever attempted anything similar.

Rico had another routine, too, one that has been retired except in our memories: he performed "Throw Your Arms Around Me," with his arms outstretched and his head cocked to one side (just like Mark Seymour on the cover of that live album, "The Way To Go Out"). And when Seymour sang "from your head down to your toes," yep, you guessed it, Rico would point to his head and then his toes. And when Seymour sang "I will kiss you in four places," Rico would point to his mouth, his nipples, and his crotch and smile a crooked smile.

It was funny the first couple of times we saw it, but it really didn't have the legs the other routine had. It just wasn't a fitting tribute for the song that finished second only to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in an infamous (among Hunnas fans, anyway) Australian poll that decided the best rock song of all time.

No, "Throw Your Arms Around Me" is best played in an intimate setting, with candles and wine, as part of a mix CD you assembled explicitly for the purposes of sly seduction. Because, let's face it, is there another song that better expresses the limitless joy of the love you both feel right now, in this room, with these candles and this bottle of wine, than that one?

I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.

"My 80's: Hunters & Collectors" is the first in what I hope to be a series of little posts about the songs from that decade that meant (still mean) the most to me. The song links will remain active for a few weeks, or until I post the next installment -- whichever comes first. Let me know if you like it.

posted by Bill Purdy, 8:44 PM | link | 9 comments