Holy guacamole, it’s another banner week. To expedite this week’s column, I’ve shunted a handful of titles to next week just to give myself a little breathing room. As my design professor used to say, when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp. I’ve kicked a couple of alligators into the future … let the draining begin.
The Thermals have traveled a tumultuous path since forming in Portland seven years ago. They’ve gone through drummers with an almost Spinal Tappish regularity while amping up their Pop/Punk sound from no-fi (their infamous $10 recording budgeted More Parts Per Million) to lo-fi (their official Sub Pop debut, Fuckin’ A) to mo-fi (their conceptually fascinating The Body, The Blood, The Machine, produced by Fugazi’s Brendan Canty), but always in the service of their catchily melodic songs, filled to overflowing with engaging harmonies, sly humor and tons of Northwest Punk energy.
The Thermals have since departed from Sub Pop and landed at Kill Rock Stars, perhaps the premier Northwest indie label for stripped-down Punk, indicating that they may be ready to backslide on their career arc of pushing the sonic quality a little higher on each successive outing. On the Thermals’ fourth album, Now We Can See, the band -- or to be more precise, guitarist Hutch Harris and bassist Kathy Foster, who also provided drums in the studio before the hiring of former Say Hi skinsman Westin Glass -- and producer John Congleton do indeed push their sonic texture just slightly back from Canty’s fuller atmosphere on Body/Blood/Machine, hewing closer to the raw clamor of Fuckin’ A.
The album’s opener, “You Dissolve,” has the relentless chug and one-note piano hammer of The Stooges, and “When I Died” swings with a “Sweet Jane” insistence, while “At the Bottom of the Sea” plods along at a Mopecore pace, followed by the Buddy-Holly-on-crystal-meth jitterbug of “When We Were Alive.” Harris is like the Indie Punk version of Ben Folds -- a songwriter who has the rare ability to be pissingly funny and disconcertingly serious at the same time -- and Now We Can See is further evidence of The Thermals’ facility for building on that talent.
Nearly a quarter century ago, the gents of XTC decided to break away from the pastoral Folk subtlety that had defined their work in the early ’80s without the neck-wrenching U-turn of thematic artistic upheaval. Under the banner of Dukes of Stratosphear, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory (Sir John Johns, the Red Curtain, Lord Cornelius Plum pseudonymously, along with Ian Gregory as E.I.E.I. Owen) created the lysergic swirl of 1985’s 25 O’Clock, a six-song mini album that buzzed with the hallucinatory energy of early Pink Floyd, the chamber Pop majesty of The Beatles, the adrenaline rush of The Electric Prunes and the groovy Pop psychedelia of Tomorrow, a loving parody with equal doses of authenticity and irreverence. At the time, XTC claimed no connection to the Dukes (they even thanked them in the liner notes of Skylarking for loaning them guitars), but only the most cloth-eared listener could have missed the similarities.
Two years later, with the amazingly mature Skylarking under their belts, XTC decided to revisit the Dukes in a more considered way. Approaching the project with the intention of crafting an actual full-length album and taking more time to create the songs and attendant atmosphere, the Dukes released Psonic Psunspot to slightly less delight than greeted 25 O’Clock as jaded critics were already onto and over the joke. The smart ones realized that these two works represented some of the best music that XTC had ever done, an observation that was exemplified when both albums came out as the single CD, Chips From the Chocolate Fireball.
Two decades later, Andy Partridge has decided to allow the two works to stand along again, reissuing them as separate titles on his Ape House label. 25 O’Clock benefits the most from the revisitation, featuring stripped down demos of four tracks from the EP, two songs that didn’t make the cut (the McCartneyish “Nicely Nicely Jane,” the Donovonish “Susan Revolving”) and a trio of extra cuts; the Deeply Purple “Black Jeweled Serpent of Sound” and the psychotronic jaunt of “Open a Can of Human Beans” and “Tin Toy Clockwork Train,” both of which show the XTC seams more blatantly.
The similar structure on Psonic Psunspot merely expands the track list to include equally stripped back demos, all of which are songs that appeared on the original album. There is a case to be made that Psunspot didn’t require expansion because it was complete to begin -- the Rubber Soul jangle of “Vanishing Girl,” The Kinks dancehall bounce of “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown,” the Byrdsian burn of “You’re My Drug” -- and the demos are simply an interesting peek into the process. In fact, it’s all just a deeper glimpse into the always-fascinating creative vortex that is Andy Partridge and XTC and further proof of their astounding abilities.
Bob Mould is toasting a number of anniversaries this year; his 30th since the live debut of Husker Du, the ferociously melodic Punk trio that introduced his formidable talents to the world, and the 20th of his landmark solo debut, Workbook.
For his ninth solo offering, Life and Times, Mould continues in the relationship-centric vein of last year’s District Line but with an emphasis on the writing style that characterized Workbook. By concentrating on his songs’ lyrical foundations first, Mould was free to improvise their musical skins, and his recent evolution gave him the additional freedom to access his entire body of work toward that goal.
As a result, Life and Times sports an fascinating blend of Mould’s diverse pallette, as evidenced by the album’s first four songs -- the title track, “The Breach,” “City Lights (Days Go By)” and “MM17” -- which all retain some of the acoustic form that he originally envisioned them but quickly peg the needle with his patented sinewy emotional electricity, and “Lifetime,” which thrums with a Pop take on his recent electronic experiments. Nowhere is Mould’s evolution more pointed than in the album’s first single, “I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore,” which would have been a pissed off, get-out-of-my-life anthem in the Husker Du/Sugar/early solo days, but now becomes Mould’s melancholy mea culpa (“I always find the broken ones, what does this say about me?/Maybe I’m the broken one, maybe when the lights go down/Maybe I’m the one who is lonely...”). Life and Times isn’t so much a return to form as it is a Bob Mould greatest hits collection with all new material.
Forty years ago, a handful of Southern California bands set their controls for the heart of the paisley sun, dropped a tab with their astronaut Tang and ascended into the sonic stratosphere strapped to hallucinatory engines of feedback, volume and sometimes unsettling vibrations. San Francisco’s Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound don’t remember those times -- they were likely in pre-school when the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Love was celebrated -- but they channel the era with the swirlingly lysergic rush of a trip’s first half hour on their third offering, When Sweet Sleep Returned.
Combining the jammy, free-form Rock/Folk flow of the Grateful Dead and the dark melodic pop heart of Jefferson Airplane and Spirit along with the shoegaze scuzz of My Bloody Valentine and the gently rippling groove of My Morning Jacket, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound pack well for their epic journey to the center of the mind. With harmonic vocals mixed far to the rear, plenty of textural Mellotron, some lovely Tull/Traffic flute interludes and scads of fuzzy guitar freak outs, Assemble Head’s When Sweet Sleep Returned will trigger the best kind of flashbacks for those of us that were there and a flash sideways or two for those who were born too late.
Atlanta’s Coathangers assembled a mere three years ago, and have progressed to a point where they’ve been tapped as openers for the likes of The Black Lips, Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, among others. The quartet’s sound on their sophomore full-length Scramble is unadorned Punk, sparse and straightforward, and yet oddly diverse. They veer madly between relentless Punk simplicity on a par with Pylon (“Pussywillow”), the earliest B-52s (“Arthritis Sux”) or the swinging melodicism of The Modern Lovers (“Dreamboat”), turning on a dime toward the atonal ferocity of The Slits (“Time Passing”) or the Pistols (“Gettin’ Mad and Pumpin’ Iron”).
All four Coathangers sing so it’s hard to tell who’s doing what, but the foursome (guitarist Julia Kugel, keyboardist Candice Jones, bassist Meredith Franco, drummer Stephanie Luke) possesses a collective voice that is tremulously poppy, shriekingly punky and blood curdlingly shrieky. From the sound of Scramble (and the tour photos at www.thecoathangers.com), the Coathangers must be a mad mosh party live; let’s hope we get a chance to find out soon.
If you’re a fan of singer/songwriters and somehow Richard Shindell has escaped your attention, there is a serious gap in your collection. Shindell may well rank as one of the world’s best narrative songwriters; his lyrical gift is so descriptively powerful and his characterizations so vivid that every song he crafts could be the blueprint for a movie. Not Far Now, Shindell’s eighth album and first set of new songs in five years (2007’s South of Delia was a covers collection), is simply another brilliant example of his absolute mastery at framing stories and the music to accompany them.
“Parasol Ants” kicks off the album with one of Shindell’s favorite devices; providing a small detail from a larger, untold tale, in this case the observation by a small time criminal as he lays incapacitated on the ground, watching a line of ants carry bits of leaves, and his conclusion that he controls their destinies by virtue of his superior size, missing the point that he cannot control his own. Shindell brings all of his characters to vivid life with his weary voice and his breathtakingly evocative arrangements; the recovering junkie in “State of the Union,” the lovestruck street performer in ‘A Juggler Out in Traffic,” the shady land developer in “One Man’s Arkanas,” the ancient Roman traveler and his mule in “Get Up Clara,” are all real enough to know and love and empathize with, because they’re us.
Perhaps the best of the bunch is “Bye Bye,” Shindell’s update of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” a heart-aching look at a moment in the life of the song’s subjects 10 years after the hasty and contentious departure of their daughter. Just as good is Shindell’s haunting take on “The Mountain,” the late Dave Carter’s quiet ode of spiritual struggle, which shimmers and reflects darkly in Shindell’s moody arrangement. As usual, Richard Shindell has filled Not Far Now with characters and songs and situations where vulnerability and strength tumble out in equal measure and a universe of possibility exists in the smallest details.
A lot of my vinyl burning comes through a process that resembles Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon; thinking/talking about this band leads to that band leads to a sense memory of another band and I’m off on an album hunt. This one was fairly straightforward. My friend Kirk and I were having a discussion about Captain Beefheart and the law of diminishing returns that has afflicted anyone who has attempted to cover the Captain (tributes to his work have been well-meaning and interesting, but the source material still beats them by a light year). Kirk mentioned Joan Osborne’s incredible gender-corrected cover of “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” and I readily agreed, but after hanging up, I was bugged by the nagging suspicion that we’d missed another gem. In the middle of doing something later in the day, it hit me: The Tubes’ beautiful version of “My Head Is My Only House (Unless It Rains)” from their wonderfully twisted third album Now.
After the over-the-top Rock vaudeville of The Tubes 1975 debut (featuring the classic “White Punks on Dope” and their longtime anthem “What Do You Want From Life”) and the slick excess of their sophomore album Young and Rich (running the gamut from the trendy “Slipped My Disco” to the Phil Spectorish “Don’t Touch Me There” to the anthemic “Stand Up and Shout”), Now was misunderstood by critics and fans alike. For their third album, The Tubes accessed a subtlety and elegance that had been largely absent from their studio work to that point, and most people chalked it up to failed experimentation. I was not among them.
By the time Now came out in 1977, I had already been well into Captain Beefheart for close to six years, so my tolerance for weirdness was fairly high. Frank Zappa had been my gateway drug for the Captain, and as much as I loved the Jazz/Blues acid skronk of Beefheart’s early work, one of my absolute favorite albums was the Captain‘s 1972 masterpiece of dadaist Pop, Clear Spot. The night that I bought it, I came down with a raging flu and had to spend the next day at home on the couch. My grandmother had a Ladies Aid meeting to attend and errands to run so she was gone for the afternoon, so I put the Captain on the crappy record player we had in the living room, flipped the switch to repeat and listened to the first side of Clear Spot six times in a fever sleep. I finally hauled myself off the couch, turned the album over and repeated the process. The next day, I was well enough to go back to school wtih the tale of how I found my new favorite album. To this day, I believe that Clear Spot helped drive out the flu bug.
When I saw that the Tubes had included a cover of “My Head Is My Only House” on Now, I was thrilled. It’s a gorgeous song, an atypically melodic and romantic number in the Beefheart catalog and one of my favorites from Clear Spot, and I was sure that The Tubes were more than up to the task of doing it justice. Were they ever. Incorporating most of the Captain’s original arrangement with just enough Tubisms to put their distinct mark on the song, Fee and company matched and amplified the melancholy beauty of Beefheart’s wondrous composition.
The rest of Now was equally great, from the faux hipness of “Smoke” to the sophisticated Pop/Americana swing of “Strung Out on Strings” to the urban Blues cool of “Golden Boy.” Throw in the Fusion workout of “God-Bird Change” (featuring newest member, percussionist Mingo Lewis), the Roxy Musicesque sci-fi Jazz lurch of “Cathy’s Clone,” the Sinatra Rock of “This Town” and the more classically bent Tubes entries of “I’m Just a Mess” and the leering double entendre of “Pound of Flesh,” and you have another fabulous collection of Tubist art.
So why didn’t it do better at the time? Rock was more corporate and cookie-cuttered, Disco was everywhere, Punk was just beginning to make inroads in America and anything remotely diverse was unclassifiable and therefore burned as heretical. Now was doomed. 32 years later, it still has a polarizing effect on people. Critics still look down on it, but truly fervent Tubes fans most often point to it as their favorite of the first four studio albums (although for me, Remote Control is still tops). Three decades and change later and Now still tweaks my music jones in all the right places, and that’s really all that matters.