Monday, December 27, 2010

Ten for '10: The Unblinking Ear's Year in Rock

The Village Voice Sound of the City panel recently asked if 2010 was the best year for music ever. I try to shy away from hyperbole myself but even if one ignores most of their (and, it seems, every other music critic's) picks (LCD, Vampire Weekend, the ubiquitous Kanye), 2010 was indeed a rather good year. In compiling the list below, I found myself with about six or so "definites" and 20 or so "could bes." That's a lot more than usual.

2010 was also the year we lost Jimmy Lee Lindsay Jr., better known to the universe as Jay Reatard. Though gone, his influence on the rock underground remains. It's been four years since he released his watershed solo debut Blood Visions. Also released the same year was Times New Viking's debut album and these two records cast a long shadow. The first few years of the 21st century yelled "Return of the Rock!" as loudly as possible but whatever moderate commercial success was achieved by demi-raw garage or post-punk revivalists fizzled by the middle of the decade. Of course, the music biz answer to failure is always "slick it up" and suddenly rock was in short supply once again.

While it's debatable on whether or not Reatard and TNV kickstarted the new lo-fi/DIY movement, they certainly seemed to remind many of the purifying, primal thrill noise and volume can bring to a pop song. Good records by interesting bands have been coming at a fairly steady clip ever since. Punk was finally (if only partially) reclaimed from the shopping mall and rock was not dead after all.

Or is it? This year, the Official Arbiters of Music Taste for the Young, White and Privileged seemed relieved that the lo-fi "trend" had run its course and it no longer had to pay lip service to a sector of the underground it didn't care for or understand in the first place. Evidence can be found in their dismissive, middling reviews of Woven Bones, Wounded Lion and Thee Oh Sees. Others found it difficult to distinguish what should be obvious sonic variety in different bands using the same basic rock vocals/guitar/bass/drums set up. At times, I feel like a teenage metalhead who can easily pick out the nuances between his favorite bands. Whereas to most people, it all sounds like the same unlistenable racket.

In any case, below is a list of the best rock music going right now. To my ears, anyway. Listed more or less alphabetically to free myself and the artists from the indignity of ranking. Accompanying each pick are either excerpts from past reviews or new text if I had not reviewed them previously. I'm sure some of you are going to download all of these at once. My advice: Pick the one that sounds most interesting you and try just that one. Music is a lot better if you take the time to enjoy it.

Casual Victim Pile compilation (Matador)
If Casual Victim Pile wasn't the record of 2010, then 2010 was the year of Casual Victim Pile. Released back in January, this collection of bands from Austin, TX was like a harbinger for the year to come. Many of the bands on the comp released good to excellent albums this year: The Young, Woven Bones, Dikes of Holland, Tre Orsi, Harlem, The Golden Boys' John Wesley Coleman. Others like Kingdom on Suicide Lovers and The No No No Hopes contributed standout tracks that have me looking forward to their future releases. Casual Victim Pile served as notice for every other scene to step up their respective games. Frankly, it might be one of the best regional comps ever. And Rayon Beach isn't even on it!

Grass Widow Past Time (Kill Rock Stars)
Rather than provide direct hooks to hang your hat on, Grass Widow invite you to luxuriate in their singular sound. Their voices (the band's harmonies are top notch) and instruments weave in and out of each other. Each element is distinct and sometimes oblique yet they seamlessly form a whole. That may read as being challenging and it can be but Grass Widow is also stealthily inviting. They prove that rock music doesn't need to loud or noisy to be uncompromising. Nor does it need to be traditionally catchy to burrow its way right into your brain's pleasure center. (Originally posted: 8/25/10)

Mantles Pink Information EP (Mexican Summer)
San Francisco's Mantles first came to my attention via their cut Woodist's excellent Welcome Home/Diggin' The Universe compilation. This made me feel like a fool as they had already released a handful of 7"s and a full length on Siltbreeze of which I was totally ignorant. I did manage to get my hands on this 5 track EP though. And, lucky me, it totally smokes. The Mantles have gotten the requisite VU/Paisley Underground/NZ comparisons but I heard healthy dose of Richard Lester Myers-style swagger and weariness in there as well. And really, you can never have too much of that.

Nothing People Soft Crash (S-S)
Their debut, Anonymous, made my best-of list for 2008. Their second album, Late Night, was in some ways even better and surely would have made my best-of list for 09 had I bothered to make a proper one. Soft Crash, their third album in as many years, is better still. Such prolificness is impressive in and of itself but the substantial growth they've shown with each release in such a short period is simply astounding. (Originally posted: 6/30/10)

Reading Rainbow Prism Eyes (HoZac)
Reading Rainbow's stronger melodies easily distinguish themselves. Songs like "Wasting Time," "Always On My Mind" and the title track are some of the most infectious of the year, outclassing most of band's peers among the new naive. (Originally posted: 11/23/10)

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists The Brutalist Bricks (Matador)
The Brutalist Bricks is not any kind of departure from Leo's trademark sound. Rather, it distills his greatest strengths and offers some strongest melodies of his career. And it sounds fantastic, sporting crisp production with each element clearly pronounced in the mix. (Originally posted: 3/9/10)

Tre Orsi Devices + Emblems (Comedy Minus One)
I may have given the impression that Tre Orsi is merely some revivalist act. This is not the case. If they wanted to go that route, they could simply drive headfirst into cliché, which they thankfully avoid. Rather, the trio uses their influences as a foundation for their own style, simultaneously muscular and melancholy. That they could reclaim the soft/loud dynamic from nearly 20 years of terrible post-grunge and spin it into something distinctly their own on a song like "Best Kind of Failure" is nothing short of remarkable. (Originally posted: 6/8/10)

Tyvek Nothing Fits (In The Red)
This is the Tyvek album you've been waiting for. Though chaos is an essential part of Tyvek's approach, here they focus all the clamor and weirdness that sprawled all over their prior LP into their songs. The result is an unrelenting attack. Songs pummel you one after the other, never allowing you to catch your breath. (Originally posted: 11/9/10)

Wounded Lion s/t (In The Red)
Wounded Lion are not dissimilar to fellow Californians Nodzzz in their mix of rough simplicity and unrelenting catchiness. Actually, the band(s) I was reminded of most when listening to this platter were Big Dipper and the Embarrassment. Songs like "Hunan Province" and "Belt of Orion" seem to have inherited their sense of melody directly from Bill Goffrier's old bands, sources that are both fertile and infrequently replicated. (Originally posted: 4/27/10)

The Young Voyagers of Legend (Mexican Summer)
More than once I've seen the Young likened to the Replacements, probably because of singer Hans Zimmerman's passing resemblance to Paul Westerberg in voice and phrasing. It's a pretty erroneous comparison as the Young's music is wide open and exploratory, whereas the only thing the Mats were interested in exploring was the bottom of a Bud can. However, the false identification becomes easier to forgive when one realizes the Young don't have any easy precedents to reference. Are they the loosest post-hardcore band around or the tightest psychedelic trash? Live, I might say the former, on record probably the latter. It ultimately doesn't matter how one identifies them, of course, only that they're treading some exciting sonic territory that at once seems strange and alien yet undeniably, concretely rock. If you're only going to check out one album from this list from a band you've never heard of before, make it this one.

Honorable Mentions:

Best Coast Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)

Bottomless Pit Blood Under The Bridge (Comedy Minus One)

Dikes of Holland s/t (Sundae)

Fresh and Onlys Play It Strange (In The Red)

Idle Times s/t (HoZac)

Myelin Sheaths Get On Your Nerves (Southpaw)

Parting Gifts Strychnine Dandelion (In The Red)

Super Wild Horses Fifteen (HoZac)

Ty Segall Melted (Goner)

Welcome Home/Diggin' the Universe: A Woodsist Compilation (Woodsist)

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: What I'm Into

(2010 isn't over. You shouldn't even be done with your advent calendar yet.)

Periodically, people ask me what I've been listening to lately. This kind of puts me on the spot as I try to cycle through everything I've listened to in the past few weeks and which of it might be appropriate or attractive to the speaker. Ultimately, it usually provokes a semi-hostile, passive aggressive reaction from me such as "I don't know! Stuff!"

Besides, I do a fairly regular podcast and maintain a music blog. What I'm digging at any particular time is a matter of public record. It's only a few clicks away if you own a computer. I can't do all the work for you people.

Incidentally, this is not a best of 2010 podcast. That will be the next one. Yes, I'll be condensing all the music I've liked best in the past year into a single download. How much more convenient does it get?

So the next time you see me out in public, just compliment what I'm wearing or something. We can talk about music. Just try and keep the topic narrow. And buy me a drink.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Book Club: Andrew Earles' Hüsker Dü Biography

A biography of one of my favorite bands penned by one of the sharpest music writers around, there was probably no chance that I wouldn't enjoy Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. And indeed, I did enjoy it, consuming the entire book in two or three sittings over the course of 24 hours. Though Hüsker vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould declined to participate (he's working on his own autobiography with Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad), this is an exhaustive tome, featuring interviews and insights from vocalist/drummer/songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton plus many of the band's colleagues and contemporaries.

Author Andrew Earles makes explicit in his introduction that his book is meant to be a serious examination of Hüsker Dü's music and influence, not the more sensationalistic aspects of the band that often seem to dominate their posthumous write-ups. He succeeds admirably. Earles mostly avoids what could be considered the more exploitative elements of the Hüsker story: the band members' sexuality, their alleged drug use, the exaggerated acrimony of their messy breakup. He almost apologizes when the narrative necessitates these subjects' inclusion. This could be read as an attempt on the part of the writer to not alienate his heroes. However, it's more likely that Earles realizes that Hüsker Dü were not Mötley Crüe, and that this book is not The Dirt. Hüsker Dü's contributions to culture, in their music and as a trailblazing role model for future independent bands, are more powerful than any titillating tales of rock 'n' roll revelry.

One of the reasons Earles' book works is that he gives the band proper context. The author has a firm understanding of punk rock, post-punk, hardcore, college radio, the Twin Cities music scene, SST records, what later became "alternative" and "indie" and what each meant musically and sociologically. Hüsker Dü was part of all of these things to varying degrees while simultaneously forging their own path. Earles establishes where the Hüsker story converges with the above, often affecting them as much as they were affected by them.

Context is also part of the reason Earles spends the first six(!) chapters focusing on the band prior to the release of Metal Circus, conventionally deemed the band first "important" release. It's as though Earles wrote each early chapter as its own essay examining some part of the band's story. Usually mentioned in passing as a footnote, Hüsker Dü's label Reflex Records gets a full chapter, correctly establishing it as pioneering independent, not on the level of SST but born of the same impulse. This essay approach means the initial chapters bounce around a bit chronologically and contain some redundant information. For the most part this is fine, but a rather egregious example is a quote from Greg Norton regarding Canadian punks D.O.A. and the Subhumans that reappears in the following chapter a mere eight pages later. It's rare bit of sloppiness in what is otherwise a tightly constructed book. In addition to context, these early chapters also shed some much needed light on Hüsker Dü's hardcore days. Earles is sure to make a point that I've often made myself: Hüsker Dü were not some run of the mill hardcore act that eventually changed their sound and became "good." They were one of the best hardcore acts around, on par with anyone else in the genre.

Earles spends the remaining chapters giving a chronological account of each Hüsker release and the band's activities surrounding them, with an extra chapter thrown in focusing on the band's singing with major label Warner Brothers. This may seem like the author is rushing things in comparison to the early portion of the book, but it accurately reflects the speed at which Hüsker Dü was developing musically and gaining forward momentum. He concludes with respective chapters on the band members' ventures following their dissolution and the band's legacy as well as a lengthy appendix on Hüsker and Hüsker-related releases. In these chapters, Earles offers useful and insightful analysis of every release from the band, often dissecting them track by track. It's here that Earles demonstrates his strong grasp of why Hüsker Dü was a remarkable band, offering thoughtful appreciation of their not-infrequent musical innovations. A notable exception is the band's final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, about which Earles has seemingly little to say. While the album is certainly not Hüsker's strongest, this is disappointing. As a dense, sometimes frustrating, sometimes excellent 20-song double LP, it practically begs for thorough exegesis.

Overall, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is an essential read for fans Hüsker Dü. For those who aren't fans, I'll remind them that Hüsker Dü is an essential band. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

I'll conclude with a live clip of Hüsker Dü, because it's not like I need much of an excuse anyway.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Repeating Myself

(Above: a man who knows his repetition.)

Ever since I began doing this podcast two and half years ago, it's been a sort of unofficial policy that I'd never play the same artist twice. (The exception being new releases, naturally.) I figure with such a wealth of music out there, why would I subject listeners to the same artists over and over when I could be introducing them to something new? Variety is the spice of life, they say. I even compiled a list of all the artists I've played with the intention being a spotting groups I hadn't yet played who would be worthy of inclusion.

Well, latest podcast, I made a bit of a blunder. I not only played an group I'd already played, but played the exact same song as well. And you know what? None of you called me on it. Perhaps, everyone is fine with the commercial radio policy of giving particular tunes 200 spins a week.

So from now on, I'm going to relax this policy just a bit. There's still a wealth of great bands I've yet to play. I'll get to them eventually, I'm sure. In the meantime, if you think hearing the same bands on this podcast once every year or two is terrible monotonous, you just let me know.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Release: Reading Rainbow

One of the more striking performances I've seen in the past year was from Philadelphia duo Reading Rainbow when they opened for HoZac labelmates Super Wild Horses. Their stage setup was noteworthy because Robbie Garcia (guitar, vocals) and Sarah Everton (drums, vocals) faced each other instead of the crowd. I know nothing (nor do I care to speculate) about Mr. Garcia and Ms. Everton's relationship offstage, but this simple act radiated a subtle but undeniable joy and intimacy. Informed by the K/C-86 vibe that's become fashionable of late, their sound was remarkably full given the minimal instrumentation. The two person harmonies felt absolutely lush. I stuck around for Super Wild Horses. They were fine but couldn't help but pale in comparison to their openers.

Today sees the release of Reading Rainbow's second album and HoZac debut, Prism Eyes. Does it capture the uncommon buzz of the band's performance? Well, perhaps only partially. What played as a bold declaration of identity in a live setting comes of as just a bit samey-sounding on record. However, it's an inviting sound in which listeners can easily luxuriate and there's enough variety here to prevent Prism Eyes from becoming monolithic. Plus, Reading Rainbow's stronger melodies easily distinguish themselves. Songs like "Wasting Time," "Always On My Mind" and the title track are some of the most infectious of the year, outclassing most of band's peers among the new naive.

Prism Eyes may not quite replicate seeing Reading Rainbow live, but a fraction of a transcendent experience is a lot more than most bands offer. You should probably check this one out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Know Your Genre

It's things like the above (stolen from Judd Apatow's Twitter feed) that make me think I should be much more specific in my iTunes store description.

Speaking of genres, how much come indie types can't come up with good subgenre names? What was the last one? Freak folk? Chillwave? Nobody wants to subdivide, I suppose. Metal fans cleave their medium into tiny slivers, but everything from U2 soundalikes to pure noise is "indie." Mostly this crowd just revives and misapplies terms like "lo-fi" (anything with distorted guitar that's harder than Sufjan Stevens) and "garage" (see prior).

I tried to get Curmudgeon-core (over 35 and reads Terminal Boredom) into the popular lexicon but no one was biting. But I'm making an effort.

The next podcast will be devoted entirely to "mustache punk."

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

New Releases: Tyvek, Parting Gifts, Hank IV

I know a lot of you were probably disappointed by the results of last week's election. However, there are reasons to be cheerful, such as the release of the three albums below. I have confidence that the purchase of all three by all of my readers will be enough to kickstart the economy and leave us in good shape for 2012.

Anticipation for Tyvek's debut album was almost impossibly high. Based on a handful of fantastic singles and a well deserved reputation as an incendiary live act, the band were anointed the great hope of the lo-fi/DIY/garage/punk/whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-it underground.

When their self-titled full-length was finally released in May of last year, disappointment was probably inevitable. Though a fine and adventurous record, some felt the album diluted the white hot intensity of their single with frequent Swell Maps-style song fragments and odd excursions. The consensus seemed to be "it could have been better." It probably didn't help matters that the original lineup was breaking up while the album was being assembled.

Tyvek's second album, Nothing Fits, comes out today on In the Red with all traces of excess excised. In other words, this is the Tyvek album you've been waiting for.

Though chaos is an essential part of Tyvek's approach, here they focus all the clamor and weirdness that sprawled all over their prior LP into their songs. The result is an unrelenting attack. Songs pummel you one after the other, never allowing you to catch your breath. This is not to say Tyvek are a brutal or punishing listen. Far from it, actually. Though they're not especially interested in melody, the band has a unique sense of tunefulness. They know just where to place a sudden stop, timing shift or blast of noise for maximum impact.

We could have a lengthy discussion whether or not punk rock actually exists in 2010. That's a topic for another time. But if you wanted to argue the "pro," Tyvek would be exhibit A. Nothing Fits is a strong contender for album of the year.

Also out today on In The Red is Strychnine Dandelion, the debut album from the Parting Gifts, a new project from Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound and Coco Hames of the Ettes. Though the album definitely has the loose informal feel of a side project, it's still a blast to listen to. New tunes from a songwriter of Cartwright's magnitude are always welcome and he turns in a couple of gems here. Cartwright has also proven himself the master of unearthing obscure but brilliant Jagger/Richards compositions. The Reigning Sound's cover of "I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys" was one of the highlights of Time Bomb High School. Here the Parting Gifts dust off "(Walking Through the) Sleepy City," which is expertly intoned by Ms. Hames. Just try and listen to this version without smiling. Actually, one could say that about this entire album.

The third Hank IV album, creatively titled III, is also out today on Siltbreeze. Unlike the two records above, I haven't actually heard this one yet as Siltbreeze is not in the habit of playing the promotional copy game. Still, since the Hank IV's prior two platters made my best-of lists for their respective years and since they were possibly the best live band I've seen in the past half decade or so, I'm going to go ahead and recommend this one sight sight unseen (or, more accurately, sound unheard). If it stinks, that's on them, not me.

Update: Just prior to publication of this piece, the Hank IV released a video for the lead off track from III, so I've now heard at least a percentage of the album. It's awesome. Check it out here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rocktober Record Roundup

(Have fun at your monster parties this weekend.)

As I mentioned in the post for my latest podcast, the past few weeks have had a slew of noteworthy releases. The sheer quantity has meant that it's been difficult to listen to any single one enough to write a thorough review.

So how about some non-thorough reviews?

The following are a bunch of recordings released this month you might want to check out, each summarized in a single sentence. I've pulled this stunt once before, which I'm mentioning as either a way of admitting I'm repeating myself or trying to get credit, 140 character limit or not, for beating Chris Weingarten and Discographies to the punch.

I'm going to try and give each of these some more listens in near future, despite even more good stuff coming in November. (Oh, Parting Gifts and Reading Rainbow, why you gotta be so good?) When I'm going to have time to listen to each is another issue though it's probable that any of the below are a better soundtrack to the World Series than Buck and McCarver.

Idle Times s/t (HoZac)
Just when you were sick of all the lo-fi poseurs, pretenders and bandwagon jumpers, this slab comes along to remind you that feeling the heat of the flame is a lot better than licking the soot.

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (Matador)
Missing much of the playful bounce of 2006's The Life Pursuit, B&S revert to "sad bastard" mode, which should endlessly please their core fanbase.

Fresh and Onlys Play It Strange (In The Red)
Beats Best Coast for California album of the year, sounding something like a lost collaboration between Arthur Lee and the Gun Club.

Pop. 1280 The Grid (Sacred Bones)
A nice slice of synth-laced Birthday Pary/AmRep-style gnarl that may be a sign of great things to come.

The Corin Tucker Band 1,000 Years (Kill Rock Stars)
Maria Tessa Sciarrano of Her Jazz and WPRB said of this semi-solo debut from the Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist "I believe this is what a mommyblog would sound like, if it were in musical form," which is too on the nose to comment further.

Cheap Time Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations) (In the Red)
Many people whose opinions I respect greatly praised Cheap Time's debut to the heavens though I deemed it merely "good" and I suspect the same will hold true here.

The Extra Lens Undercard (Merge)
I haven't actually listened to this yet but its inclusion here allows me to score cred points by mentioning Shrimper Records and linking to this.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Problem of Leisure...

What to do for pleasure?

Play the Xbox Kinect™, of course.

At this point, it's hardly considered an affront to credibility for a band to have their song in a commercial but has there ever been a more explicitly anti-consumerist song used in an advertisement than this?

I suppose it's plausible that Gang of Four thought it conceptually brilliant/deliciously ironic to match a song that poses the question above to a product which actually aims to definitively answer it. It's equally plausible that they simply couldn't pass on getting cut a check for what I assume is a substantial amount of money.

Now that they've taken this step, one has to wonder if there are other songs in the Gang of Four discography available for use in advertisements.

I Found That Axe Essence Rare?

I Can't Believe It's Not Guns Before Butter?

"I Love a Man in Uniform" for the U.S. Armed Services?

"What We All Want" for John Hancock Financial?

Armalite is still in business, right?

If McDonald's winds up using "Cheeseburger," then... well, I guess I'll go get some McDonald's. After all, they have cool songs in their commercials.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: My Cup Runneth Over

(You wouldn't believe how many images of cleavage a Google Image Search of "my cup runneth over" yields. Then again, you might.)

Though you'd never know it from my lack of posts (a fact I'll blame on the MLB playoffs), I've found myself in the enviable conundrum of having a rather large amount of new (and new to me) music grace my ears in the past few weeks. Enviable because much of it is quite good. A conundrum because its quantity means that I'm skipping around from record to record, enjoying most but giving any enough repeated spins to fully process them in a manner that would allow me to write an insightful account for presentation to you, dear reader.

Combine this with my finds from the WFMU Record Fair this past weekend (which will likely dominate my next podcast) and the records sitting on the Ikea Tullsta next to my turntable (still unplayed after weeks or months), and one can see that I'm currently residing in the land o' plenty.

So consider this podcast a cursory sampler of stuff you should give a listen. I'll admit, it's not my best "flowing" podcast but it's still probably more enjoyable than your average CMJ showcase.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Missing Out

No, I didn't go the the Matador 21 anniversary shows in Las Vegas last weekend (as dramatized above).

Nor did I attend the Gonerfest in Memphis the previous weekend.

It looks like there's no chance of me attending any MLB postseason games.

So what am I doing instead?

Making incredible podcasts for you to listen to.

Bunch of ungrateful jerks.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Out of Print (Not Exactly) Digital Relics: Toiling Midgets

When I write "San Francisco punk," most may think of 924 Gilman St scene, ironically both a paragon of anarcho-socialist punk orthodoxy and a breeding ground for future millionaires. Despite this claim to fame, the city by the bay has never really gotten its due as one of the first in America to fully embrace punk.

Given the city's open-mindedness and tolerance of the transgressive, punk rooted in SF early and got weird fast. Locals Crime released their first records before many prominent UK acts such as the Clash and the Jam. Outsider/bizarro rock acts like Chrome and the Residents were operating pre-punk but found both new directions and new audiences thanks to the new wave. The Dead Kennedys became favorites with the hardcore crowd and the Avengers' records garnered some acclaim from the rock press. However, the most interesting punk coming out of San Francisco was from an axis of bands who shared some members and more than a few musical ideas: Flipper, Negative Trend, The Sleepers and Toiling Midgets.

All these bands fused the spirit of experimentalism of the original CBGBs bands and UK post-punk outfits with the more aggressive approach favored by the new breed of punk bands popping up all over the U.S. None received much attention nationally except for Flipper, who toured a bit and got some posthumous recognition when Kurt Cobain sported their t-shirt of Saturday Night Live. Still, Negative Trend had their sole release, a 4 song EP, reissued by Henry Rollins and the Sleepers had a complete discography released in the mid-90s (which is out of print but available cheap). The only one of the bunch whose best work remains buried is Toiling Midgets.

Featuring the unmistakable and inimitable vocals of the Sleepers' Ricky Williams, Toiling Midgets released their debut LP, Sea of Unrest, in 1982. It was reissued on CD briefly in 1994 but quickly fell out of print and is now extremely difficult to find. This is a shame as it's one of the finer slices of U.S. post-punk. The album features many of the sonic motifs of the Sleepers' material, which Jon Savage dubbed "the sound of the unconscious". In some ways, it actually sounds like more of a continuation of the sound of the Sleepers' brilliant debut EP than that band's more muted (if wonderful in its own way) album. As befits a band from San Francisco, Toiling Midgets achieve a nearly psychedelic grace though more in the psychological sense of the word than the musical one. Besides, you'd never mistake the band's pummeling rock for Haight-Ashbury flower power anyway. If you thought that Joy Division were at their best before they went into the studio with Martin Hannett, Sea of Unrest is the record for you.

Following the album's release, Williams quit and the band released a mostly instrumental album the following year before splitting up. They reformed in in 1989 with American Music Club's Mark Eitzel on vocals and released the album Son on Matador, 10 years after their debut. The band appears to be a semi-active concern at this point. There's what appears to be an official MySpace for your perusal.

Though it was reissued on CD, the following rip of Sea of Unrest comes from the original vinyl source as I don't have a copy of the CD. When and if I obtain one, I may replace these MP3s. I've tried my best to remove any surface noise from the recording while leaving the wanted noise of the music intact.

Download Toiling Midgets Sea of Unrest

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guided By Voices: Selections from Singles and EPs, 1993-95

This is a re-post of blog entry from August of last year. I've never done a re-post before but it seems to be pertinent time to update this one for a couple of reasons:

1. The "classic" GBV lineup which this post covers is reuniting for Matador 21 this weekend in Las Vegas with more dates to come.

2. The fine folks at Decrepit Tapes just put together their own playlist of recordings from GBV's 1992-96 lineup. While theirs is a more extensive overview (covering a slightly larger timeframe and albums while this is strictly non-LP), I thought this would make a nice companion piece, despite an overlap of a few songs.

3. Most importantly, the original divShare playlist has crapped out for whatever reason, rendering most of the songs unplayable. I've re-uploaded to fix this.


As I was putting together my little demi-best of Matador list below, a couple of Guided By Voices 7" releases just missed the cut. During their "lo-fi era," GBV released a steady stream of 7 inches between albums, often containing something like 6 or 7 songs.

One could make the argument that these releases prepped the underground community for the breakthrough of Bee Thousand in a way their prior albums didn't. Guided By Voices may seem like fairly typical indie fare by today's standards but then their sloppy and extremely lo-fi prog-pop was fairly challenging. Indie/punk types may abhor the slick and professional, but GBV seemed to be openly mocking the concept of quality control. New listeners who didn't have the patience or intrepidity to sit through the uneven Vampire on Titus could surely endure a quick spin of a 7" EP and hear the handful of brilliant songs each invariably contained.

These smaller samples were much more digestible examples of the GBV aesthetic: rough fidelity, nonsensical lyrics, brevity, insanely catchy melodies. Of course, there was also the band's, shall we say, idiosyncratic method of choosing songs for release. Wheat and chaff were mixing freely. However, further listens might reveal that Guided By Voices' "throwaway" tunes weren't just filler, but rewarding in their own right. The band may have seemed impenetrable initially, but Pollard and his cohorts' twisted logic soon became readily apparent.

There has yet to be a thorough compilation of all of GBV's 7" material despite that a) they're a band inclined to clear vaults and compile collections and b) those records contained some of their signature songs. The latter assertion is somewhat indisputable as "Shocker In Gloomtown" from the Grand Hour EP and the superior 7" version of "Game of Pricks" are both included on the band's best of collection, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates.

The 15 songs below have been cherry-picked from various GBV 7"s from 1993 to 1995. That Robert Pollard is prolific is no secret but consider this: any artist releasing a batch of songs this strong over a two to three year span would be justly praised as a remarkable talent. Pollard did it while releasing three equally potent full lengths.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hyperbole Time! The (Actual) Best Song of the 90s!

A coupe of weeks ago, the website devoted making people who don't really care that much about music appear as though they do issued one of their periodic "listicles." Its purpose, as with all their other lists, is to build canon and inspire debate. Whether you agree or disagree (or vehemently disagree), the mere discussion of their lists solidifies the authority of the source.

It's not for no reason that they are one of the few major websites without a comments section. It's as though they're saying:
You're welcome to have issue with our opinions but you can't air your grievances in our house. Feel free to quarrel with our choices in another public space of your choosing so it appears as though we are the center of universe. And if you could link us, that would be great too.
This particular list was "The Top Tracks of the 1990s," a topic I thought VH1 already covered definitively. Still, there was some anticipation for who would get top honors. Bets were made. I lobbied for Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments' "Negative Guest List" via Twitter and figured Nirvana were "too Rolling Stone" to get break the top 10. (And I was right!) Ultimately, the #1 slot went to a band which recently reunited and thus could possibly repeat the feat when the best of the 2010s list is made. Possibly with the same song, Michael Bolton-style.

I was tempted to make my own counter list. I eventually decided against this, partly because it would be hypocritical to decry these kinds of lists as dumb, arbitrary and ultimately meaningless and then make one of my own. (Not that this stopped me from contradicting myself throughout this piece anyway.) It's also because I'm told my lists are often viewed by readers as "bunch of bands I've never heard of," which makes the task of checking out any of said artists to appear more daunting than it actually is.

That being said, why not just give my unequivocal endorsement to one band? Surely, there's one group of the 90s that's both so criminally underappreciated and undeniably awesome that they deserve an unshared spotlight. And if that group isn't Silkworm, it would have to be Prisonshake.

Cleveland's Prisonshake had been around since 1987 and put out a slew of singles, EPs and a box set (no kidding) before releasing their first "proper" album, The Roaring Third, in 1993. This mammoth record got enough notice to receive a positive appraisal from Spin and inclusion in the Trouser Press Record Guide. However, Prisonshake's sound was more (early) Alice Cooper than Alice in Chains and failed to connect with anyone beyond a small percentage of the indie audience (which, as a whole, was much smaller now that it is today).

This was a pity because the record was simply a monster. It has all the strut, gnarl, grit and grandeur one could possibly want from a rock album. If the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion were the 1990s embodiment of rock n roll trash, Prisonshake equally celebrated this aesthetic but without the detachment. They played it straight and their convictions and sincerity granted them a greater power.

An you don't have to take my word for it. Here's Dusted's Nate Knabel on Prisonshake:
I think Prisonshake is like the axis around which all conversations about rock music should rotate. Like planet earth spinning far and wide in its revolution around the sun (that's what it does, right?), our conversations about rock music can pretty distant from the source. And it's winter right now. Really, I'd just like to tell every band begining with like Arcade Fire (who are just fine I guess) and extending to like Wilco, MGMT, I don't know, the Delta Sprit (and deifnitely Chromeo) to go get fucked. But it's okay, because Prisonshake remains a fixed inextinguishable source of heat. The Roaring Third is the best record of the 1990s.
The Roaring Third's "hit" was "2 Sisters," released separately as a 45. Was it the best song of the 1990s? Well, it was one of the best songs from one of the best albums of the 90s. And it definitely rocks harder than "Gold Soundz."

Now that your appetite is whetted, you can go purchase The Roaring Third from the Scat Records website for mere $10. It's a bargain at twice the price. Prisonshake have many other records available from Scat as well. If you want a quick sample of the rest of their work, Brushback at On Base On An Overthrow is a big Prisonshake fan and has posted many MP3 from their various releases.

But first and foremost, get yourself a copy of The Roaring Third. Your record collection is not of museum quality without it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: The Autumnal Punkquinox

What better time for another of our semi-annual all punk rock podcasts than the first day of fall?

Just imagine the sound of those crisp, newly fallen leaves crunching beneath your Doc Martens or Converse brand "anarchy" high tops.

Or trying to balance an egg on its end, then smashing it in the name of "controlled chaos."

Or prepping yourself for Hallowe'en by getting out those old Misfits records. (Please keep in mind that when I write "old," I don't mean from the 90s.)

Yes, Autumn and punk rock go together like Social Distortion fans and bad tattoos. Or Social Distortion fans and chain wallets. Or Social Distortion fans and the presumption that this guy was "totally punk" for some reason.

Earlier installments of our series are available here, here, here and here.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

New Release: The Thermals

I've written previously on the tendency to overvalue records that seem to be bold statements on the zeitgeist at the time of their release. The 2006 album by the Thermals, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was certainly an example of this. Songs like "Here's Your Future" and "Power Doesn't Run On Nothing" perfectly surmised the frustration and anger of living in George W. Bush's America.

Luckily, it was also the band's strongest musical statement to date. And while the album was justly praised, one couldn't help but feel that this had as much, if not more, to do with its politics as its music.

Rock critics tend to be left-leaning, amateur sociologist types. This has been the case since rockwrite began proper in the 1960s. Most of its proponents were baby boomers suffering from Dylanitis and "committed" to the revolution (man). Far too often, they've been too quick to praise artists who merely reaffirmed their beliefs. Remember when socially conscious, afrocentric minded and rhythmically flaccid hip hop group Arrested Development topped the Pazz & Jop Poll?

The point is that political partisanship is fairly useless in evaluating music and ultimately does listeners a disservice. One need not share Johnny Ramone's worldview to be thrilled by his guitar playing.

In any event, the Thermals' less explicitly political followup, Now We Can See, garnered far less attention. The lack of easy rock crit copy may have been the cause of this but it probably didn't help that it was a noticeably weaker record than its predecessor. The true test comes now with the release of Personal Life. As one might presume from the title, the album stays away from social commentary altogether, focusing instead on introspective themes. Regardless of lyrical content, it's arguably a stronger and more consistent album than The Body, The Blood, The Machine. If Personal Life is not deemed to be of equal value, it may force one to wonder if the Tea Partiers are right about the liberal media.*

While the Thermals don't reinvent the wheel (nor do they attempt it), I wonder if listeners truly appreciate how difficult it is to create their brand of melodic punk without descending into cliché. Pop punk and emo have been commonplace in literal and figurative malls for so long that most of the true punk believers have retreated into noise, where the pop marketplace fears to tread. The Thermals' punk is (relatively) clean and catchy but with nary a whiff of commercialism. It's also heartfelt and earnest without ever approaching emo histrionics. The Thermals reclaim the stolen weapons from the enemy, showing them to be far more effective when used by those who understand their power.

Personal Life is streaming in its entirety at the NPR website. (More of that darn liberal media!) You should give it a listen. You should also check out this video the band made for "I Don't Believe You" which stars Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. I believe it's a tribute to the final scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. If you haven't seen that fine film, I apologize for the semi-spoiler.

*For the record, they're not right about anything.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: I Can't Compete

(Look at this guy! He's a dynamo!)

This podcast was more or less ready to be posted yesterday. However, yesterday was the first of the month. In addition to me scrambling to make the rent, it was the designating release date for the Pod F. Tompkast, which, as the more clever among you may have deduced, is the new podcast from comedian Paul F. Tompkins.

Mr. Tompkins has produced two podcasts thus far. He already has, at press time, 363 ratings and 18 pages worth of reviews. Meanwhile, I've done about 45 podcasts and have 7 ratings and exactly one review. On the other hand, my ratings average out to a perfect score of 5 five stars, whereas Mr. Tompkins' average rating is a measly 4 and a half. Take that, infinitely more successful person!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Release: Grass Widow

In 2009, the three women who comprise Grass Widow released the year's best debut full-length. As it came out on the tiny Make-A-Mess imprint, it flew under the radar of most of the "indie" covering sector.

Yesterday saw the release of the group's second album Past Time on the larger Kill Rock Stars label. This, along with some other factors (like being invited to open for Sonic Youth at Prospect Park), should raise Grass Widow's profile considerably. It's probable that those who missed out on the band's debut will be quick to heap praise on their sophomore long player, knowing full well they need to catch up on a good thing. However, the consensus thus far of those who heard and liked Grass Widow's self-titled debut seems to be that Past Time is a weaker record.

And I say that's bull. Past Time is both less "punky" and poppy" than the band's first album. As such, it's a bit harder to find an easy point of entry. Yet after a few spins, it becomes obvious that Grass Widow's songwriting hasn't slipped. They're just less interested in conventional verse-chorus-verse structure this time out than they were previously. Rather than provide direct hooks to hang your hat on, Grass Widow invite you to luxuriate in their singular sound. Their voices (the band's harmonies are top notch) and instruments weave in and out of each other. Each element is distinct and sometimes oblique yet they seamlessly form a whole. That may read as being challenging and it can be but Grass Widow is also stealthily inviting. They prove that rock music doesn't need to loud or noisy to be uncompromising. Nor does it need to be traditionally catchy to burrow its way right into your brain's pleasure center.

In 2010, it's increasingly difficult and rare for a band with a simple guitar/bass/drums/vocals lineup to forge a unique sonic identity. Grass Widow have done just that. Even more impressive is that they've managed to do so relying solely on their playing and songwriting, with no noticeable production tricks to lean on. (It should be noted, however, that production is much improved from the debut.)

A few days ago I posted a video from Past Time along with a bunch from other artists. They've since released another. At the risk of redundancy and borderline sycophantic hyperbole, I'm posting this one as well. If it's my duty to inform you of music that should be part of your life, then shoving Grass Widow down your throats (to paraphrase Fox News talking heads on healthcare) outweighs all other concerns.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Best Dave Kendall Impression

I'm sure you're all at least fleetingly familiar with the cable television network whose name is ostensibly a contraction of "Music Television." Their programming has mainly consisted of content other than music videos for so long that complaining this about seems as old fashioned as finding a station that plays nothing but videos to be novel in the first place.

And let's be honest, those who do pine for the days when MTV aired only* videos are likely coming from a purely nostalgic perspective**. During their time as the de facto national radio station, it's not as though MTV was in the habit of presenting its viewers with cultural flotsam any less reprehensible than Jersey Shore***.

Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit MTV shaped my nascent taste on some level. I gravitated to their late Sunday night dumping ground for "alternative rock" just before that became a highly marketable term. For the short-term cost of being groggy and irritable in class on Monday morning, I was exposed to a lot of bands for the first time. The Pixies and Nirvana, sure, but also Bettie Serveert and Teenage Fanclub****.

So in that spirit*****, here are some music videos:

First up, we've got the new video from Ted Leo and Pharmacists, directed by Tom Scharpling and starring a bunch of Best Show regulars (though, sadly, not Spike or Fredricks from New Port Richey). As some of you may have deduced, this was the big announcement promised by Leo in a lengthy and mostly sincere blog post on Friday. I don't mind bragging that I got a special preview of this video nearly two months ago (and have the tweet to prove it).
I'm sure you're going to want to watch the above a few more times. Once you're ready to move on, below are a pair of videos from Grass Widow and Super Wild Horses. They both have quite good albums being released tomorrow on Kill Rock Stars and HoZac, respectively. (They are also both comprised entirely of women, though that's hardly relevant, right?)

Next up, here's a video from Austin's Woven Bones. Their debut album, In and Out and Back Again, came out earlier this year on HoZac and is well worth hearing. Who knew HoZac's promo budget included video expenses?

We're going to wrap things up with a "cult classic" from Christmas. I nearly wrote a "Used Bin Ubiquitous Bargins" post about this song's parent album, In Excelsior Dayglo but then I saw this. As I'm not fan of redundancy, I decided to scrap it. Needless to say, even though you can download this out-of-print album for free, you would do yourself a favor if you pick it up the next time you see it in a used bin.

*Or, at least, mostly.
**Though it's possible they just have bad taste.
***In comparing Adam Curry to Snooki, you'll see that even hair height has remained remarkably consistent.
****And Jesus H. Jones, some embarrassing blind alleys I'd rather not discuss in a public forum.
*****Also in the spirt of easy content that allows me to post to this blog more than once a month/appeasing the publicists nice to enough to continue to send me zip files of new releases.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Saturday Morning Funnies

(This show has aged remarkably well.)

I'm not exactly sure what times and days of the week get the most web traffic, though I'd suspect Saturday mornings are pretty low. Hence, my strategy here. I figure since no other websites bother to update at this time, there's a vacuum to fill.

The timing works for every demographic. Those with children will be online desperately trying to find something to listen while their kids are blaring Kidd Video (that's still on, right?) on the TV. Single, childless people will be waking up hungover, going over to the computer and checking their Facebook to see if the pics from the party they went to (or weren't invited to) have been posted yet. And BAM! there's the link to my latest podcast.

Needless to say, I've got this whole internet marketing thing down.

Or, more likely, no one will see this and I'll have to repost on Monday afternoon when people are sitting at the office desperately looking for something to do besides work.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

New Release: Bottomless Pit

With each release of a new record, there was a bit of a running joke among the small but highly devoted following of Silkworm: "It's their best album since the last one." While fans certainly had their favorite releases from the band, it was their way of acknowledging that being Silkworm fan meant buying into them totally. The band was remarkably consistant (not the same as static or repetitive) and loving one of their records more or less meant you had to love them all, as the band's essential qualities were present in everything they released. To do otherwise meant you were either extremely nitpick-y or didn't really like them all that much in the first place.

Songwriters Tim Midgett (bass/vocals) and Andy Cohen (guitar/vocals) retired the Silkworm name following the tragic death of drummer Michael Dahlquist at the hands of a reckless motorist in 2005. They subsequently formed Bottomless Pit with the rhythm section of Chris Manfrin and Brian Orchard. Midgett switched over to guitar, a move that made sense as he was playing more and more guitar on Silkworm's later albums. Mournful and cathartic, the band's initial releases were quite good but seemed a bit tentative in some ways, as though Midgett and Cohen were unsure on how to continue without their longtime collaborator (or, perhaps, even if they should.) Replicating the chemistry of a 15 year musical partnership couldn't have been the most unchallenging of tasks.

Bottomless Pit's latest album, Blood Under the Bridge, comes out today on the Comedy Minus One label. It's the band's most assured release to date, a record that finds Midgett and Cohen equaling the glory of their former group with apparent ease.

I've written extensively on Silkworm before (click here, if you care to read) and there are a few key differences in Bottomless Pit's sound, mainly the duel guitars. And Orchard wisely doesn't try to replicate Midgett's signature fat bass. But mostly everything that made Silkworm is present here. Midgett and Cohen are both in fine form as songwriters, offering some of the best tunes of their career.

Alternating between stately elegance and hard crunch (and equally adept at both), their songs evoke a kind of serene melancholy. Lyrics like "There's no such thing as too much time" ("Rhineland"), "A slip of the knife and, oh, we're in love" ("Summerwind") and "So many fuckers in this world" ("Late") suggest that some sadness is inevitable in the human experience and making peace with that is difficult but necessary. Instead of sliding into despair, the music offers hard fought redemption.

The group meshes beautifully. Midgett and Cohen finally seem comfortable in their new roles. Midgett's guitar provides foundation and Cohen's adds color. Cohen is justifiably known for his lengthy solos, which often flirted with excess and indulgence but worked perfectly. Here, he's mostly kept himself in check though he does get to stretch out a bit in the jaunty "Late" and the stomping closer, "38 Souls."

It's tempting to say that Blood Under the Bridge is Midgett and Cohen's best record since whatever Silkworm album happens to be your favorite. If you don't know Silkworm, it's equally tempting to throw out the names of a few of their records as essential entry points. However, Blood Under the Bridge is so excellent a piece of work, it would be fallacious to deny it's as good an introduction to Midgett and Cohen's work as any. Though there's been a fair amount of 90s indie rock nostalgia around of late, this record is far more vital than say, the Pavement reunion. I recommend its inclusion in your household as soon as possible.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Term Limit Up for Mayyors

It is my sad duty to report that one of the better bands to emerge the past couple of years, Sacramento's Mayyors, are calling it quits. The band's lack of web presence in the digital age (no website, no MySpace, no Facebook, no Twitter) gave them a certain mystique, which is sure to be enhanced even more by breaking up before releasing a proper full-length or going on a national tour.

I never got to see the Mayyors perform live as they never made a sojourn to the East Coast. If the three records they made during their short lifespan (all already highly collectable) are any indiction, they would have been something behold. Fortunately, a live set they recorded for WFMU at the 2009 SXSW has been preserved for posterity.

Since he actually got a chance to see them, I'll live it to Chunklet's Henry Owings to eulogize the band properly. And I'll leave it to these fan made (I'm pretty sure) videos to show why the Mayyors' handful of records got me as excited as any I'd heard in recent times:

The final Mayyors shows are as follows:
08.13.10 - pdx, or - SMMR BMMR @ Plan B w/Woven Bones, The Lamps, Wounded Lion, Meth Teeth, GGreen, Burning Yellows, Myelin Sheaths, Therapists, Manic Attracts, Fist City, $12, 21+, 6pm

08.14.10 - pdx, or - HOUSE PARTY @ 110 n. failing w/Jonny X & the Groadies, GGreen, Big Black Cloud, all ages, $5, 8pm

09.03.10 - daly city, ca - @ Serra Bowl w/Ty Segall, Culture Kids, Blasted Canyons, all ages, FREE, 8pm

09.05.10 - davis, ca @ d.a.m. house w/Thee Oh Sees, The Lamps, all ages, $5, 7pm
It would be more more or less impossible for me to make the Portland shows (despite a pretty incredible lineup for 8/13), but I may have to hitch it out to NoCal for that first weekend in September. Anybody in the area want to put me up for a few days?