issue 23 :: June 2014

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Rock Reviews

Can, Jane Weaver, The Feelies, Faust, Atavist, Before the Rain, Jodis, Equimanthorn, Judas Priest, ST 37, Marisa Anderson, Holland Hopson, Christina Carter, Chalk Circle, The Weird Weeds, Plutonium Farmers, Agent Ribbons, Brilliant Colors, F/i, The Cannanes
CanThe Lost Tapes (Mute/The Grey Area) 3xCD

“Bring home the mother load” is a line of dialog from the retro-psychedelic 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow. Such a directive could easily apply to a collection of lost works by these masters of groove and sound. And this is a mother load of expertly recorded pieces, “ethnological forgery series,” live jams and soundtrack work that for no good reason didn’t make it on to record before now. My only complaint, as a fan, is that there are only 3 CDs of material culled from some 50 hours of tapes. And this is not throwaway material; much of the recordings feature vocals from Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki. I’ve been listening a lot to the bootleg records Outtake Edition and Queueing Down; this is better material and better recorded. “Barnacles” (1977) sounds like a rehearsal take from Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson album. “Evening All Day” (1972) is an odd bit of Asian flavor, ringing gongs and sparkly melodies that sounds like a few “ethnological forgery series” jams edited together. “Graublau” (1969) is a long, propulsive rocker; it’s astounding this has been unissued. We are also treated to live performances of “Spoon,” “Mushroom” and “One More Night,” each of which turns an interesting side to those familiar songs. Every song here as an exceptional surprise; everything you enjoy about Can is represented here.
Jane WeaverThe Fallen By Watch Bird (B-Music) CD

Prolific songster and multi-instrumentalist Jane Weaver leads a recent ensemble of mostly overdubbed herselfs with guests adding clarinets, harps, violins and percussion. The music mines a beautiful throwback to early 1970’s English folk-rock and each song unearths some different ore; the title track a driving rock vamp, with pounding drums and synthesizer bubbling in the back ground; “Turning in Circles” a beautiful ballad of acoustic guitar and xylophone. “A Circle and a Star” makes a droney bed of accordion and harp for a treated recitation of Michael Hill’s dramatic poem “Collapse.” As befitting the literary nature of the songs, a companion illustrated book of the same name tells the story of the titular Watch Bird. I bought the CD on a lark, not knowing exactly what it was: it is a pleasant introduction to Weaver’s long discography.
The FeeliesHere Before (Bar None Records) LP

Twenty years is a long time to wait between records, but absolutely worth it in this case, picking up exactly where 1991’s Time for a Witness left off with a very American propulsive guitar strum that seems free of any genre posturing and pretensions. Each song sounds natural, wonderfully recorded by the band. The rhythm/lead guitar interplay is inventive and colorful and a joy to sit and let wash over you. I like the record through and through; it’s an old friend returned from afar, an old friend who should have never have left in the first place. Excellent. I can’t pinpoint a favorite song from the bunch; it works as a whole. Fuck Pitchfork’s idiot reviewer for saying this record pales in comparison to their first record from 1980. Fuck him: he only prefers Crazy Rhythms because it reminds him of Weezer. This is one reason of many why Pitchfork is horrible, to be avoided; I can’t explain why I thought I would see what they had to say about this great record. MMPP might not come out every day, but do you know what releases some stinky piece of shit every day? Your ass and Pitchfork.
FaustSomething Dirty (Bureau B) CD

I am amazed and overjoyed that Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Harvé Péron are still working as Faust and still able after forty years since the first Faust LP to make a record as enjoyable and rocking as Something Dirty, in large part from their collaboration with Geraldine Swayne and James Johnston, each contributing a variety of guitars and keyboards. Perhaps my favorite Faust record since You Know Us, which has gone missing: who borrowed it?!, Zappi and Jean-Harvé remain one of my favorite rhythm sections, seemingly effortlessly creating the perfect bed of anything else to thrive upon. Part of the joyous surprise of this record is how inventive in terms of sounds, song structure and grooves Faust remains, how many risks the band continues to take. Swayne’s ethereal vocals on “Lost the Signal” sound like nothing else Faust has done. The first half could almost be on a 4AD sampler, before exploding into a distorted bass freakout jam. The vitality of the record stems from the fact it sounds like it was recorded in live in a small room. Wonderful, flawless.

Amaury Cambuzat and Jean-Hervé Péron @ ND Studios, Austin Texas, May 20, 2012.
AtavistII : Ruined (Profound Lore Records) CD

If you’ve counted the number of metal bands of any variety that have been reviewed in the print and digital pages of this publication since 1994, perhaps a Don Caballero 7” from issue 1 would be the closest thing you would find. I’ve never been interested in metal for a number of musical and social reasons; I don’t hate it, I don’t ask friends to turn it off when they play it for me, not that it happens too often. But the bombast, inevitable costuming/makeup and guitar tones are not to my liking. Watching Sam Dunn’s Metal: Headbanger’s Journey and Metal Evolution have not exactly converted me, but have piqued my interest in some of the less comically awful bands. I’ve been trying to get Brent Fariss to write an article on metal niche genres, but, seemingly he is “busy” and “having a life.” The Austin store Encore Records recently went out of business after 28 years, and I recently went to see if I could find any metal records that interested me. I judged records only by their cover art and song titles. I did not want anything with gory, sensationally perverse or “twisted” imagery/titles (Gorey titles would have been awesome). In the dredges of what was left of Encore’s stock, I found a few titles that seemed like I could like them. Atavist almost didn’t make the cut: I loved the stark black & white cover photo of a ruined school/hospital hallway, but the hard-to-read font of their name concerned me. That was another of my arbitrary criteria, no hard-to-read fonts. The music, surprisingly, is a roller-coaster of dynamics, very slow pounding beats with distorted guitars sustaining chords into feedback wails, with incomprehensibly screamed, guttural vocals, but then long stretches of much more quiet guitar strumming and a bit of sad piano (!) in the background. This is Doom Metal, the Internet informs me, as if the motto on the inside of the CD packaging “No Life Worth Living” isn’t a clear indication of Doom. Is there such a thing as Gloom Metal? Most of the songs are long (three over fifteen minutes) and intense. I liked it, mainly because of the variety and dynamics throughout the record.
Before The RainFrail (Avantgarde Music) CD

I was confused, this was clearly in the metal section, but the cover didn’t seem too metal, and the label name Avantgarde Music (you can laugh at my ignorance)... Could this be some drone/ambient record? No, it is a Portuguese “gothic/doom” (label press release) band that fuses some much more mainstream sounds. Again I am surprised at how much each of these long songs changes, jumping from one style to another, actual singing that jumps into the incomprehensible guttural growl so easy to ridicule. There is some obvious eBow guitar at the beginning of “Breaking the Waves” (named after the movie?), and some nice guitar playing in between heavier sections. The variety in this case didn’t seem to fit; it’s almost as if two distinct bands occupying a time-share studio. I probably won’t keep this record, but I do appreciate the variety: out of ignorance I’ve always thought of metal bands having only a single monolithic sound throughout a song/album.
JodisSecret House (Hydra Head Records) CD

Now this record seemed really out of place in the Metal section, especially with the presence of James Plotkin, a name I vaguely recognize from ambient industrial records from the 1990s. Maybe I’m wrong with that, but that was what sprang to mind. The record is a perplexing mix of those two genres. The music is slow, with loud, ringing guitars, and seldom percussion crashes, as if a 200bpm metal song was slowed down to 20bpm. The singing—heavily reverbed wails—very intense. If you told me this was a Painkiller dub record on Tzadik, I would believe you. I wouldn’t buy such a record, but I would respect it at a distance and think of Jodis. — Since I listened to the record and wrote the above, I am reminded that Plotkin might also be known for being in the doom metal band Khanate, whom are a bit too doomy for me. Tim Wyskida is also in both bands, and that makes sense; Jodis sounds like a dub reduction of Khanate, everything pulled apart, with huge, gaping silences in everything, in a similar and spacious way as Shellac can draw apart a punk trope.
EquimanthornSecond Sephira Cella (From Beyond Productions) CD

With titles like “Entrance to the Ancient Flame (Precursory Procedure in the Name of OUMQ)” and “Nindinugga Nimshimshargal Enlillara (The Enthroned Ninnkigal Gazes Benignly Upon the Viewer from a Fragment of Contentment, by Means of a Craft Inscribed To Our Queen Ereshkigal,” I expected something, but not the droning, mystical incantations delivered here, mixing oud-like pluckings, ritual hand drumming and gloomy synthesizer atmospherics. It’s odd, it could easily fit as the soundtrack to a made-for-cable TV movie about wizards or angels, and similar to nothing else in my collection, save for maybe an old release by the Hybryds. Voices, chanting, speaking, arise unexpectedly.
Judas Priest

After the previous four somewhat informative but unsatisfying explorations into metal, I decided to listen to 1970s Judas Priest. I had never really listened to them before. I found I really like them. I regret not listening to them in high school. There are certain fashion issues I still have with the band, but I’ve really enjoyed listening to their first 10 or so records, a majority of the material for the first time. I’ve really enjoyed the range of music covered on their 2nd and 3rd records before their metal direction solidified. The 1987 live record Priest... Live is a good overview of their career (even though they dress like Bon Jovi in the live footage of the time). I haven’t enjoyed much of what they’ve done since; songs about Nostradamus and the Loch Ness monster do nothing for me. You can easily find on YouTube a 1975 British television appearance where they are dressed as long-haired hippie rockers wearing platform boots and blouses that is hilarious, the music is good, solid hard-rock, but those blouses... My experiment into heavy metal would have been better served had I started at this obvious starting point. I think they are extremely interesting as a look into the evolution of Heavy Metal; at once the front runners and creators of the metal image and sound, they were constantly challenged by immerging trends, especially the faster Speed Metal of the early/mid ’80s, and constantly prodded by their label to produce hits (including a cover of "Johnny B. Goode" which I refuse to listen to), anchored by their natural sense of discovery and innovation and a desire to please a fickle fan base.
ST 37Awkward Moments (Reverb Worship) CD

ST 37 has been one of my favorite Texas rock bands for close to 20 years, first seeing them play live on an Austin cable access TV show. Their records are usually fun, interesting experiences, but the band has to be seen live, and seen live now in their current quartet version of Scott Telles, Lisa Cameron, Joel Crutcher and Bobby Baker of the Baby Robots on rhythm guitar. I see them live at least once every six months, and two of these performances, both in the small space of Trailer Space Records, have been the band at their kraut-jam best. This record gives a glimpse of that greatness, recorded, I think, on an East Coast tour in between the afore-mentioned shows. ST 37 can lay out a mototik-inspired track like few else, and such songs as “Concrete Island,” and “I Was Looking For My Digital Underground Grandpa Tape” show off that side, the somewhat murky recordings do not do justice to what the band sounded like fifteen feet away from them. I firmly believe that hearing a band play on their own amplifiers is usually better than hearing those amps through a PA, and that is certainly true for ST 37. “Future Memories” and “Watch the Bile Come Out” display their harsher, Texas Punk side, an acid trip in the West Texas glare. A cover of “Just You,” the song played by the teenagers in Twin Peaks, adds a bit of weirdness, played as a 1960s band would play a high school dance. The noise and sample drenched “Grandpa’s Birthday” features Rat Bastard of the Laundry Room Squelchers on static radio, providing the noise icing with Scott Telles’s tapes of movie and song fragments. This is both a good live record for the band and an equally good introduction if you haven’t heard them yet. As a bonus, the album’s liner notes detail amusing incidents of life on the road.
Marisa AndersonThe Golden Hour (Marisa Anderson) CD

Guitarist Anderson’s oeuvre is the greasy, overdriven country blues guitar that came from people like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James and the like. As I saw when hearing a small concert performance, her guitars are vintage, her amplifier is small and cranked up, her music ernest and genuine with an emphasis on slide guitar and riding the line between a clean tone and tube distortion. It was fun to hear that kind of music live, bluesy ballads and footstompers. The Golden Hour is exactly that experience of wonderful guitar tones.
Holland HopsonPost & Beam (Grab rare Arts) CD

Hopson takes a completely different path to the old country classics with his Max/MSP triggered banjo, linked to a laptop providing electronic accompaniment. It’s a very weird mix of the old and new, maybe Ellen Fullman has taken a similar approach with some of her song music. Hopson is a skilled player on the banjo, the record would work just as straight banjo songs, but he adds these strange computer effects or rhythms. Never the canned and stale rhythms that bleed anything interesting from most electronica, Hopson’s electronic sounds are being generated on the spot in response to the playing, and never trigger ordinary drum samples. I am reminded of the novels of Clifford Simak where robots of the future are intelligent enough to figure out how to live their lives authentically, and then become caretakers for some forgotten bit of human culture. This is what those robots in thousands of years would sound like, trying to resurrect bluegrass music, just from old copies of Sing Out! magazine and a ancient banjo left in a barn.
Christina CarterTexas Modern Exorcism (Many Breaths) CD

It is hard not to think of the music of Jandek when listening to these songs. It’s not a comparison of surface features, but a haunting space about them, there is a direct earnestness about them, a comfortable sense of self, a distillation of Carter’s unique musical essence. I think about big, empty houses, maybe inspired by the big, ringing guitar chords. Here, she deftly uses reverb and multitacking to make her voice seem like it is coming from a basement. The six songs are a mixture of the wordful and the wordless, poetry and her distinctive wailing, a siren of art and atmosphere, using piano, harmonica, creative overdubbing to mysteriously somber ends.

Christina Carter
Christina Carter, performing in Austin, 2012
Chalk CircleReflection (Mississippi Records/Post Present Medium) LP

A refreshing reissue of art punk from early 1980’s Washington D.C. that sounds more like English groups like Girls At Our Best, the Delta 5 and the Desperate Bicycles than what I would expect from D.C. at that time. The music, and recording, is raw and lo-fi in a wonderfully fun way, gathered from rare cassette comps. Every song is a bit different, this quartet—guitar, drums, bass, vocals—does not follow a simple formula of song creation. The band only existed for a few years. I was not at all familiar with the group throughout my years of casual contact with guitarist Sharon Cheslow. I hate to offer unsolicited advice, but if I were her, I’d introduce myself to everyone as “I used to be in an awesome punk band that you’ve never heard of.” But that is just me, and I love the sound of this band.
The Weird Weeds[untitled, but I call it the one with the people pulling the boat. -ed.] (Sedimental) LP

On their fifth album, The Weird Weeds abandon their distinctive vocals for a set of nine untitled instrumentals that still nicely recall Gastr del Sol, especially guitarist Aaron Russell’s impressive finger-picking skills. Without words, the focus here turns into long, repeated stretches of hypnotic rhythms and beautiful ringing guitar chords. This may be their last record, and I fear their music will be lost in an ever increasing tide of new product. But this record is not product, it is Art.
The Plutonium FarmersHelloha / Index Zero (Wattage Cottage Records) 2xLP

The guitar and two drummers of The Plutonium Farmers used to do a high energy free jazz assault, but here, their first major release after a few home made CDrs, they turn to surf punk songs mostly written by the guitarist and now singer, Jonathan Horne, a much beloved figure in multiple Austin scenes. Recorded by Steve Albini in Chicago, the songs are brisk and catchy. They throw in deft covers of jazz pieces by Andrew Hill and Wayne Shorter that defy characterization. Jonathan told me that we would never have begun to write songs without hearing The Weird Weeds; ironically, their last album did not feature any singing. Since the release of the record, my friend and sometimes collaborator Matt Armisted is out of the band, replaced by bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, now living in Austin.
Agent RobbinsChateau Crone (Antenna Farm Records) CD

I write record reviews so slowly that by the time I get to Agent Ribbons’ 3rd album, they have broken up, and singer Natalie Ribbons is already in another band, Tele Novella. But that doesn’t make this record any less enjoyable. The most important part of this record is the song “I’m Alright,” an infectiously catchy retro-pop masterpiece. That one song is worth the price of admission, but the rest of the record is nearly as good. The singing is a bit theatrical, but clever and stylish. Some songs have a weird circus feeling with accordion replacing the guitar. I was just starting to enjoy seeing them perform live in Austin when they broke up. The title song from their 2009 7” “Your Love Is The Smallest Doll” is also a much repeated song from them, in the circus music vein no less with accordion and toy piano melodies and march drum beats.
Brilliant ColorsAgain and Again (Slumberland) CD

I can’t listen to this and not think of the Shop Assistants and Tallulah Gosh. It’s the same bright guitar jangle, singy vocals, rough no nonsense production. Very enjoyable indie pop. Not much to say: I have all their albums, including an LP compilation of their 7" releases. When will a new record be out?
F/iA Question For The Somnambulist (Strange Attractors Audio House) CD

A 2006 reissue of a 2003 release adds an additional track (“The Hot Shop”) of jammed out rock instrumentals drawing on Neu, Agitation Free and some of what Spaceman 3 drew upon, and at times sounding similar to my friends ST 37. In a blind listening test, I’d swear some of these pieces were ST 37. This F/i record, their 20th?, features a lot of distorted guitar and lengthy guitar solos. Synthesizers exist in the background, but the focus is on guitar and drums. Praise to drummer Darwin Grosse for his propulsive rhythms. The song “No Pepsi In Kabul” changes pace to a spacy take on Indian classical music, synthesizers and guitars doing amazing interpretations of Indian instruments. I didn’t know F/i had recorded so many albums since 1983, and I’ve only heard two or three. This record makes me question what have I been missing from their other records.
The CannanesSmall Batch (Explosion Robinson/Lamingtone) CD

Another sweetly interesting record by the Cannanes, whom seem to be able to pick up and drop the guises of different bands for each record. Here the band plays with a electronica sheen with many of this six song mini record containing “beats” provided by Stephen Hermann, who also adds liberal amounts of synthesizer and electric piano. But most of the songs also feature Penny McBride’s trumpet and drums from four different drummers. The mood is a lively 1990’s alternative pop dominated by Stephen O’Neil’s bright guitar and Frances Gibson’s sultry vocals. This is a familiar sound, but the Cannanes are one of the finer indie pop bands, and if they want to make a polished, big rock record, well, they are going to make a damn good one. I am reminded of Air Miami or The Church’s Priest = Aura record from 1992. This is part of a current revival of the Cannanes after being somewhat silent since 2002.
Reviews and live photos by Josh Ronsen.
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