Friday, March 19, 2004

WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH SUB POP?

There are few greater sensations one can experience with their clothes on than coming home from work to find a box of free CDs on their front doorstep. That’s what I experienced last Friday. I’ve given the package a week to digest, so now it’s time to discuss the contents.

So, why would I be on the receiving end of a box of free Sub Pop CDs? It’s simple: someone from their head office wrote to me wanting to trade a few F/i CDs I’d (re-)released and offered to swap it for some Sub Pop titles. Sounded fair to me, there were a couple of things on the label I wouldn’t mind getting… Son, it’s a deal!

Some friends may titter at me getting a box of free CDs from Sub Pop. After all, weren’t they the Kings of Grunge back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s? That oft-discredited “movement” I was never too shy about dissing? That’s true, though I never felt that Sub Pop were responsible for the really bad stuff that came out of that scene. Sure, there’s those Blood Circus and Love Battery albums we all had to suffer through, but as for the likes of Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, well, anyone who confuses those kinds of bands with a label like SP has their head either in the sand or up their backside.

My only real connection with the label over the years have been: A) really liking that debut Mudhoney EP when it first came out; and B) visiting the Sub Pop store in 1999 when I was in Seattle, and what a disappointment that was! Desperately desiring a souvenir of my Seattle Experience, I scoured the store for half an hour searching for something to buy, finally settling on their reissue of the Wipers’ brilliant Is This Real? (a purchase I’m glad I “settled” on). I ended up having my “real” Seattle Experience when I visited Fantagraphics later that day and spotted Mark Arm, slouched in the corner, MC5 t-shirt on, reading an issue of Eightball. True story!

Anyhow, you don’t need me to tell you that SP has, perhaps against all odds, been releasing some rather fine discs of late. Some are reviewed below and some are to be released in the near future: Wolf Eyes (an over-hyped band, for sure, though when they’re good, I can’t deny the appeal of their amazing Throbbing Gristle/Black Flag hybrid); Comets On Fire (speaking of hype…); and Jennifer Gentle (unbelievably great Italian psych band you don’t want to get me started on. Suffice to say, you will be hearing a lot more of these guys in the future). OK, on with the show…

EARTH – 2 CD; Pentastar: In the Style of Demons CD; Phase 3 Thrones and Dominions CD
I specifically requested these titles, as I’ve become quite entranced with certain bands trawling the “doom” genre of late (SunnO))), Khanate, Corrupted, Electric Wizard, etc.), and, to state the obvious, the mighty Earth are, along with the Melvins, considered by many to be the band to kick-start the genre in the ‘90s. Earth were essentially Dylan Carlson, he being Kurt Cobain’s ex-roommate and notorious fuck-up (to get a peek into his levels of fucked-upness, you only need to see the interview with him in Kurt & Courtney. He’s a walking poster boy for anti-drugs campaigners), and various hangers-on who constituted a “band”. The idea was to take the prehistoric crawl of early Black Sabbath and slow it down to a barely-resonating pulse. Sometimes this is achieved with a group (as on Pentastar), and sometimes this is done through only an accompanying bass (as on 2).

2: I owned this years ago and sold it during a particularly brutal CD cull. Listening to it again now, I know why. Not much happens here. Track 1, “Seven Angels”, is a nice guitar-feedback dirge with a hint of melody, though the following two merely sound like Dylan left his amp on and walked off for a very long cigarette break. And there’s about 50 minutes of it. I think I’m supposed to like this, but I don’t. 6/10.

Pentastar: Earth’s most “rock’n’roll” moment, this is one of their best. Alongside a few tracks of near-Melvins/St. Vitus-style “rock”, there’s some ghostly piano and guitar loops bordering on Branca territory, all enveloped in a drugged-out aura I find mighty appealing. Newcomers needing an "accessible" entry point should start here. 9/10.

Phase 3: a friend was green with envy when he heard I received this CD, as it’s apparently been out of print for a long time and he’s been searching, Kung Fu-style, the far reaches of the universe for it the last couple of years. I can see why. This is my fave Earth outing. Essentially being a sonic mixture of the two previous CDs, Phase 3 combines the guitar rumble and experimentations of 2 with an occasional, though not fully formed, rock touch. Imagine, if you will, a combination of Haino-style guitar torture, Black Sabbath doom, Neil Young’s Arc and Lou’s Metal Machine Music, and that’s approaching the territory of Phase 3. Fucking awesome. Phase 3, I promise to never give you up. 9.9/10.

THE SHINS – Chutes Too Narrow CD
And now for something completely different… I was glad I received this CD, believe it or not. Some may laugh at that, as the Shins are often seen as exactly the kind of gormless, yet ultimately harmless indie-rock band I’m often heard mercilessly deriding, though their “hit”, “Kissing the Lipless”, has been receiving such a flogging on public (and probably elsewhere) radio down here, and is so engrained in my brain, that I felt it would be a good thing for me to finally own a copy of it. “Kissing the Lipless” is, of course, an undeniably appealing slice of pop. When the chorus hits and the high notes come in, I’m transported. I’ve played it about 50 times the last week, and its appeal is still yet to fade. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the album. Where are the tunes? The hooks? Sounds to me like they recorded the bulk of this album in a coma. “Kissing the Lipless”: 10/10; the rest: 2/10. I will, however, be keeping this for that one song.

MICHAEL YONKERS BAND – Microminiature Love CD
There appears to be a universal verdict regarding this album, the great “lost” 1968 outing from Mr. Yonkers. The verdict is this: it’s an unsung masterpiece. That verdict prompts me to ask this question: have I been taking crazy pills or this merely an ordinary ‘60s garage/psych album which has garnered such levels of praise only for its elusive, “lost” status? I’ve been burned way too often to get excited about things like this. Look, the music of Simply Saucer, Electric Eels and Vertical Slit, to name but three great, lost bands, is something I can get my ears around: their music is amazing, regardless of any status, but Yonkers I’d unfortunately put under my Record Collector Music banner, alongside Debris’, Monks, Silver Apples and the Deviants: interesting bands who made some fairly OK, out-of-time music for the era, but whom, taken out of any context, didn’t actually record many great songs. Microminiature Love looks good on the shelf, though it probably won’t be moving from there too often. 5.5/10.

ALL NIGHT RADIO – Spirit Stereo Frequency CD
I think this is two members of Beachwood Sparks, the Byrds-style outfit with various releases on Sub Pop. Never heard much, if any, of their music, though I think it’s safe to say that these guys are travelling the same terrain, albeit with a more symphonic, multi-layered sound. Ingredients: take Forever Changes and The Notorious Byrd Brothers as base ingredients, stir in Sister Lovers, the Carpenters and various early ‘70s AM radio staples and pour. Is it tasty? It’s OK, though the “pop magic” ingredient is lacking, leaving little taste in my mouth afterwards. The production is undoubtedly amazing, with lots of swirly, outer-space sounds coming in and out of the proceedings, but for me, this kind of music is strictly perfunctory: you’re there for the hooks, and this just doesn’t offer the goods often enough. 6.5/10.

BAPTIST GENERALS – No Silver/No Gold CD
I know little about this band, except what I read on All Music Guide the other day (most of which I’ve forgotten. Sorry). The good news is that I like this quite a lot. The ‘Generals, a loose, ramshackle, lo-fi ensemble with a rootsy edge, sound to me like the lost link between Daniel Johnston, the Shrimper Records stable of ’91-’95 (Refrigerator, etc.) and the lost-in-space ramblings of Jandek. It’s the year 2004 and I’ll be the first to say that such a combination doesn’t light a fire under my ass like it used to, though if we’re all here to debate music one actually enjoys listening to, as opposed to showing off, then the Baptist Generals rate pretty OK. Will I still own this in 5 years? Unlikely. Will I search out any of their other releases? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Bands like the Baptist Generals don’t “interest” me the way, say, Earth or Savage Republic or Current 93 do – people doing something unique I can’t quite get a full grasp on – though their music still brings me sonic pleasure, a quick fix I can instantly attain then disregard. Do I find their music disposable? Yes. Do I enjoy it? Yes. That’s all you need to know. 7.5/10.

KINSKI – Air Above Your Station CD
A friend who works at a record store in town, knowing my intense fandom for Acid Mothers Temple, recommended this album to me about a month ago. I shrugged my shoulders dismissively, grunted and said something to the effect that the chances of a band like Kinski setting my world alight with a space-rock masterpiece are next to nil. To make it simple: I don’t need a band like Kinski in my life, a band I’ve always associated with the Kranky School of MOR Mediocre Space-Rock. You know what? I made that ironclad judgment without ever having heard them. Does that make me a dismissive, jaded asshole who should give up the music game? Possibly. Probably more so, since I like this album a whole lot. My original claim stands: I don’t need Kinski in my life. I don’t need more space-rock in my life. A band like Kinski are not necessary. The gaps have already been filled. They are, in essence, a band that would fit perfectly on a label like Kranky: that well-worn mix of Sonic Youth/My Bloody Valentine guitar sheen with a hint of Hawkwind and Krautrock. Phooey! Heard it all before!! So why have I not stopped playing this the last week? Because I like it? Yes, yes I do. Will I investigate their discography further? Unlikely. Track five, “I Think I Blew It”, is worthy of any great mid ‘70s Eno album you care to mention. No shit. Verdict: Kinski are an entirely obvious, wholly derivative outfit who make enjoyable music. Case closed. Next! 8.5/10.

KINSKI/ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE – CD
I won’t bore anyone with a lecture on AMT. No, wait, I will… AMT are a rare breed of a band: one worthy of its hype, a band who will stand the test of time, a band whose quality of music overrides any negative connotations one may regard with them. The ultimate pastiche ensemble, an otherworldly combination of Gong, Hawkwind, Terry Riley, Blue Cheer, Incredible String Band, Syd Barrett and Frank Zappa, they get my vote as the greatest rock band of the last 5 years. AMT excite me, they move me, their music brings me great pleasure. That’s three strikes and all you need to know. But this CD? It fills a gap, but not much else. Two tracks apiece from each band and two collaborative efforts, it sounds exactly like you’d expect. That’s not a bad thing, though mostly this sounds like an album on Space-Rock Auto-Pilot. 7.5/10.

MUDHONEY – Since We’ve Become Translucent CD
If you’d told me in, say, 1993, that in the year 2002 Mudhoney would release an album I’d really like, I would’ve told you you were high as a kite and needed a lie down. That’s because Mudhoney have rarely, if ever, registered much more than a distant blip on my musical radar. Sure, along with everyone else I LOVED that Superfuzz Big Muff EP when it first came out, and sure I saw them play here in 1990 and they ROCKED, but since then? The weird thing with Mudhoney is, the moment they became “big” within a larger context, they ceased to make any decent music. Actually, that’s not “weird” by any usual standards; in fact, it’s the standard scenario, but what I mean is, despite their signing to a major label at the time, they didn’t musically sell out or “go commercial”, they simply wrote album-upon-album of crumby material (something Mark Arm himself quite openly admits to in Our Band Could Be Your Life). So, wisely, in the late ‘90s they hung up their guitars and let the band rest for half a decade.

Skip to 2002: I was working in a CD chain store and this album came floating into the New Release section. To be honest, I usually wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, but so starved for anything remotely close to something I could relate to in the commercial context of the store, I went out to the backroom and gave it a spin. What the hell?! This first song is incredible! “Baby, Can You Dig the Light?” is like the ultimate Stooges/Seeds/Hawkwind/Spacemen 3 combination, a lengthy, crawling dirge punched along by a wall of feedback and howling saxophones. They’d sold me. I never gave the rest of the album a proper, thorough listen, but it’s now 2004, I own it, and I have some good news: the rest of the album is just as good. Mudhoney have finally, or yet again, put their record collections to inspirational use and made an album I will proudly state as being one of the finest of its sort in recent memory. Who the fuck would’ve ever imagined that?! 9/10.

Sub Pop, you can lay some free CDs on me any time!

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