Monday, December 26, 2011


The Raincoats:  Odyshape (We Three Records)
Human Switchboard:  Who’s Landing in My Hangar? Anthology 1977-1984 (Bar None)
The Do:  Both Ways Open Jaws (Six Degrees)
Various Artists:  My Top 2011 Picks

No, I’d never heard much of the Raincoats or Human Switchboard. When I did, I didn’t retain the experiences, or explore. “How can this be?” I hear you asking - at least those of you who know I was involved with the new wave/seminal alt. scene (djing, fanzine publishing, record store lackeying, near-constant clubbing). Well, the answer isn’t that interesting. But as those of you who were around back in that day know, there was a LOT going on; much of it local, and you can’t be everywhere, hearing everything, all the time. More to the point, and more personally, however, the only explanations I can muster are, re: the Raincoats: (1) For live music, I really, really liked rock ‘n’ roll. Home, or at Nelson’s, I was absorbing Bossa Nova, Carl Orff, Steve Reich, and other things that seemed to go with being involved with a mixed-media-explorative writer, along with starting to take my own creative writing more seriously. Also, we were seeing Ethiopian pop bands (great fun). And whenever I heard the Raincoats, I think I confused them with the Slits, who, when I heard them, I liked, but whose most frequently-played song (the “Heard it Through the Grapevine” cover) was a bit too arch-arty for me. Also, some of the Slits were, at different times, in the Raincoats. Which, if you were drunk a lot when they were being discussed, was… confusing.

Odyshape seems to have a rep for being somewhat less punchy and accessible than the Raincoats’ first album. Turns out the album’s relatively interior, poetical inclination is a great place for me to re-start. It’s an odd, often beautiful, sometimes quite brilliant road. While the Raincoats are often cited for their influence on riot grrrls and other female artists, they were groundbreaking on any terms. For one thing, I can’t imagine We Might Be Giants without the Raincoats, and I doubt Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon doled generous kudos to the liner notes for the ’93 Rough Trade reissue of this album), would have started out so sure-footed/rooted in an exploratory attitude, without them. I believe the Washington, D.C. group, Tiny Desk Unit, was at least partly Raincoats-inspired.

Odyshape is ferociously intuitive and feminine; blending just the right dose of yang punch into volumes of yin. I know that not everyone shares my love for Laura Nyro’s poetical, more introspective journeys (as on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat or Eli and the 13th Confession) or even the McGarrigle Sisters’ buoyant, sometimes high-pitched folk, let alone the backwater trip into an arcane wilderness taken by Daisy Debolt with Allan Fraser. I’m pretty sure the bits of Raincoats that dribbled through my drunken haze influenced my own subsequent performing; my sense of how far art can go. I mention these not just to throw out a few reference points but to share how challenging it can be to climb into the Raincoats – probably not for everyone. For those who live for such challenges, this reissue is a gift.

At the top of the pile are “Baby Song,” the title song and “Only Loved at Night.” But it’s kind of like having sex; there could be a lifetime of memories around licking the right finger, but imagine what would happen if you went from there? This is not the kind of album from which to cherry-pick downloads. The Raincoats are either going to make you want to bash the wall in or do a cockeyed happy-dance.

This stuff blows the walls of my brain and psyche open.

Human Switchboard just makes me feel open, with periodic laughs and winces. Bar/None’s reissue of the long-elusive Who’s Landing in My Hangar, with 19 additional tracks via download, is a great reason for getting up in the morning. And since it wouldn’t be exciting to go into any more details re: my relative ignorance of HS, I won’t. But it’s weird how nostalgic this stuff, which I barely recall hearing at the time, makes me feel. It reminds me of my first-ever experience of the Velvet Underground (Loaded), of experiencing Controls (the band Keith Campbell and Roddy Frantz had before they moved on to other projects) in Campbell’s basement in, I think, ’76. It reminds me of being taken to CBGB in 1974 to see Debbie Harry and Ivan Kral with the Stilettos. There were about 15 other people there. A dog (probably Hilly Kristal’s) took a dump under the pool table in the other room and no one bothered to clean it up. True story.

HS brings back all the joyful abandon and youthful (for those of us who were, at the time, quite young) angst of the new wave. It’s nice to see that Holden Caulfield’s finally found some kindred spirits, who form a band with him. He’s learned he wasn’t alone, sitting in that motel room, watching a couple squirt water out of their mouths at each other; feeling an odd loneliness; longing for shared spontaneity.

Perhaps the most invigorating thing about HS is the way Bob Pfeifer and Myrna Marcarian, with Dave Schramm, pushed against the boundaries of their technical limitations. It seems far from incidental that  David Thomas (Pere Ubu) mixed their first EP (The Modern Dance is one of my all-time favorites per its precarious balance between form and chaos). At its best, HS provided a harbinger for the more mature, less risky marriages of form and chaos that would come with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Sonic Youth, along with the Violent Femmes’ prickly outbursts. It funneled Patti Smith’s passion, Jonathan Richman’s creativity, Richard Hell’s bloodletting, and Lou Reed’s coolness into songs that feel naively confessional, and that are astoundingly (given the band’s limitations) versatile.

Want an intuitive guidebook to forming a band? Want to feel alive again? Or, as has been my case for the last year or so, want to remember how invigorating, lively, and essential the new wave really was? Human Switchboard could be your go-to.

And that’s not all.

My third year back into music journalism has been amazing. I’ve probably only experienced ½-1/3 of the 2011 releases that deserve coverage. Even within that percentage, I’ve been moved by the ingenuity and innovation musicians are using to mine significant gold from been there/done that boxes of Pop and Rock.
We seem to have arrived at a place where the influences that were being digested, regurgitated, and, sometimes, fooled with for the first several year of YouTube and other providers (better to smirk and jump over something than be intimidated by it) are being sincerely, effectively integrated into musicians’ templates.

One of the most prominent exemplars of this sincere, effective integration is The Do. From what I can see, Finnish singer/composer Olivia Merilahti is a genius. Whether realization of her ideas would be so stunning without the collaboration of multi-multi-instrumentalist and composer Dan Levy is immaterial. They met around composing music for the film L’Empire des Loups. Together, they’ve crafted a sophomore full-length as innovative as Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan, and that affects me as I was by my introductions to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound.

I was initially pulled into Both Ways Open Jaws by Trentemoller’s remix of the duo’s “Too Insistent.” Several days into the sleeping, eating, working, and socializing that got between me and this album, “Too Insistent” was eclipsed by the full album experience. There are moments that bring up the Raincoats, Bjork, and early Bowie.  Part of Merilahti’s magic derives from her facile transmission of her hyper-sensitive insights. From The Do’s own mouth(s), we have this: (Olivia):  "I'm constantly after the ideal song, I believe in a song's healing powers. (Dan): "We're looking for the diversity and richness of sound, surprises in the details, orchestral colours. It certainly comes from our culture of classical music, our love of contemporary music, and of musicians like Charlie Mingus - the types of music that follow no map."

Whatever it takes. These sounds nestle into the blood.

Here are some of my other favorite 2011 releases, with links to anything I may have written about them:

Amor de Dias: Street of the Love of Days (Merge) –
The Beets – Let the Poison Out (Hardly Art) –
The Bloody Hollies: Yours Until the Bitter End (Alive Records)
Pieta Brown: Mercury (Red House)
Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid (File Under Music) –
The Clutters: Breaking Bones (Chicken Shack) –
Dennis Crommett: Into the Buffalo Surround (Signature Sounds) –
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop) –
Floating Action – Desert Etiquette (Park the Van) –
Gardens (Alive Records) –
Sam Humans: Live Free/The Heligoats: Let Loose (Greyday Records) –
Cass McCombs: Humor Risk (Domino) –
Mercies – Three Thousand Days (Self-released) –
Jack Oblivian: Rat City (Fat Possum) –
Paleo – Fruit of the Spirit (Partisan Records) –
Radiation City: The Hands that Take You (Tender Loving Empire) –
Redbird: Live at the CafĂ© Carpe (Signature Sounds) –
Robbers on High Street: Hey There, Golden Hair (Rocco Grecco) –
Los Saicos (Reissue/Demolicion!) (Munster) –
Sleepy Vikings: They Will Find You Here (New Granada) –
Sonny and the Sunsets: Hit After Hit (Fat Possum)
St. Even: Spirit Animal (Dustbin Records) –
T-Model Ford and Gravelroad: Taledragger (Alive Records) –
Trentemoller: Reworked/Remixed (In My Room)
The Velvet Monkeys: Reissue/Everything is Right (Instant Mayhem/Thick Syrup)
Gary Wilson: Feel The Beat (Tip Records)

Light 'n' blessings to you in the new year,