Friday, May 21, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: The Terrible Twos

(Above: A fearsome twosome)

With this post, I have now been doing my podcast for just over two years.

I don't expect recognition of this anniversary that Google granted Pac-Man today.

If you want to buy me a piece of cake, I will gladly eat it.

Or you can follow me on Twitter, which I'm doing now because it's 2010 and you have to.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Used Bin Ubiquitous Bargains: The Blasters

Used Bin Ubiquitous Bargains is a new feature wherein I recommend LPs I frequently see fallowing in the used bins of record shops despite their quality and reliably low sticker price. They are the albums you can find easily, will only set you back 5 beans or less and are probably better than the whatever the hype machine is praising this week.

The Blasters' self-titled album is a perfect candidate. It was popular enough to make it all the way up to #36 on the Billboard chart on 1981, thus many copies are in circulation. Plus, I'm sure those who haunt record shops are unlikely to take a chance on the album based on the cover, which has to be one of the ugliest in rock history. It looks like an unskilled artist was airbrushing the cover of the first King's Crimson album from memory on to the back of somebody's jean jacket. Ironic, considering the Blasters play pretty much the aesthetic opposite of King Crimson's prog rock.

While the Blasters are usually referred to as "rockabilly," that's not strictly true. "Rockabilly" has become a sort of shorthand for all pre-British Invasion rock n' roll, encompassing 50s country, blues, roadhouse R&B as well as legitimate rockabilly. The Blasters draw from all these styles and do so exceptionally well. While their recreation of early rock n' roll is certainly derivative, it never comes off as pandering or as mere affection, as it does with, say, the Stray Cats or someone. Rather, it plays like a celebration of "American Music," to borrow the title of one of the band's more popular songs. The enthusiasm the band has for the source material is both obvious and infectious.

Despite their traditionalist bent, the Blasters were birthed through the L.A. punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin actually did stints in X and the Flesh Eaters. While this may strike some as somewhat surprising, it actually makes a world of sense. The L.A. scene was extremely open minded went it came to supporting different kinds of music and was especially interested in the primitive hoodoo of early forms of rock n roll as the antithesis of the bloated sounds of 70s mainstream rock. Alvin, for his part, has stated that he was inspired just as much by seeing Johnny Rotten on TV as he was by Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Chuck Berry. (A dubious claim but we'll take him at his word.) While bands like X and the Gun Club infused their love of vintage rock n' roll and blues with a more aggressive sound, the Blasters happily played it straight. As the most conventional band in the scene, it's unsurprising they were the most commercially successful. Their moderate fame foreshadowed the rise of "roots music" and "Americana" in mid-80s mainstream rock in the forms of Springsteen, Mellencamp and their ilk. This was partially a reaction to the popularity of the stylized new wave groups that were dominating MTV at the time, commonly and pejoratively referred to as "English hair bands." (SST's Joe Carducci humorously surmised the situation as "flag wavers vs fag wavers.") More insidiously, another factor may have been the nostalgia for an idealized 1950s-that-never-existed were so prevalent in Reagan's America.

Regardless of socio-political content, The Blasters is probably the only musical relic of the 80s infatuation with the 50s that you need to own. Below are two cuts from the album: their version of Little Wille John's "I'm Shakin" (one of many covers in the Blasters' repertoire) and the original "So Long Baby Goodbye." If you want to hear more, you'll undoubtedly find The Blasters in a used LP bin near you for a very reasonable price. And if you're lucky, your copy will include a one page catalog for Slash Records merchandise. A Decline of Western Civilization blue v-neck t-shirt? Where do I send my money?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Many Misanthropic Moods of Wilson

I'm going to take a break from the usual music coverage offered in this space (not that the music coverage is so prolific that it needs a break) to discuss one of the few other subjects about which I know something, comics. In particular, the recently released graphic novel, Wilson.

Wilson is the first stand alone comics work from Daniel Clowes in six years. To non-comics fans, Clowes is probably best known as the creator of Ghost World, both as the author and artist of the original graphic novel and the screenwriter of its successful film adaptation. However, to those who follow his medium, Clowes is one of the most renowned comics-auteurs, his work among the most influential in independent comics. As his first major work after his extended furlough (aside from a series of single page comics that appeared in the New York Times magazine) anticipation for Wilson was perhaps impossibly high. While it may initially feel like a bit of disappointment in that context, Wilson is throughly rewarding on its own merits.

In Wilson, Clowes reuses the single page format from his Times work, Every page is a "gag strip." That is, each page is set up as its own little story, building to a punchline in the final panel. Taken together, the strips form a years-spanning narrative for its title character, a miserable middle-aged misanthrope who incorrectly identifies himself on the book's opening page as a "people person." One might assume that Clowes is deconstructing (or re-constructing?) the Sunday newspaper cartoon strip, suggesting that individual strips are fragments of a greater character arc.

However, unlike the affable characters one usually finds the in the Sunday funnies, Wilson has to be one of the more aggressively unlikeable protagonists in fiction. Within a few pages, he reveals that he left his wife while she was pregnant, torments his former in-laws and starts conversations with strangers only to berate them. Wilson is a smug, deluded blowhard and the book wrings a lot of laughs from his interactions with the world. In one of the book's funniest sequences, Wilson pontificates away typically until another character finally divulges her feelings of deep ambivalence toward a family member. After this gut-wrenching revelation, Wilson's response is a flippant "Hey! It talks!" It's refreshing to see Clowes employ his trademark twisted sense of humor again. While his recent work like Ice Haven, David Boring and The Death-Ray were widely (and justly) acclaimed, there was little trace of the man who gave the world hilariously warped comedy pieces like "Sensual Santa" and "Needledick, the Bug Fucker." While Wilson is not a pure "humor" book by any stretch, it's good to see Clowes hasn't lost his touch when comes to bringing the funny.

One could easily spend hours contemplating the implications of Wilson's empathy-discouraging eponymous character, just as one could with protagonists from similar cringe-comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. But its format is what's most awe-inspiring about Wilson. Clowes has used a somewhat similar formula before. Ice Haven was built on a series of strips which, at first, only seemed to be tangentially related but eventually added up to a whole narrative. However, he has not attempted a format quite as rigid as this before. Yet he mines a surprising amount of depth out of what would seem to be a very limiting structure. Details that are seemingly minor have major effect later on. Key information is held back and when revealed makes the reader view the prior pages in a whole different light. The fact that each page works individually while the whole works collectively is nothing short of stunning.

Clowes further showcases his skill by shifting his drawing style throughout the book. Some pages are in a simple, cartoony Peanuts-style. Others are more detailed, inching closer to photorealism. And there's all manner of degrees in between. Yet every panel is distinctively Clowes. A minor gripe is that while the breadth of styles is impressive, in no way does it inform or enhance the story. Unlike a book like David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, where the way certain characters were drawn were as essential to their nature as the text, here the different visual styles seem to serve no purpose other than for Clowes to dazzle the reader with his ability. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, and the variety probably makes Wilson a more exciting read than if it had been drawn in a uniform style. But it seems like a bit of missed opportunity. Some have commented that there is a rationale for the style of each page, saying that more cutesy the rendering, the more the characters are suffering. Perhaps it's my ignorance, but I see no evidence of any correlation.

For those unfamiliar with Clowes' work, Wilson is probably not the best place to start. (Get yourself a copy of Ice Haven and proceed from there.) However, it's highly recommended to both fans of Clowes and fans of independent comics in general. The preceding sentence might be a bit redundant. Such is Clowes' legacy that those two groups are more or less synonymous.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Out of Print (Bootleg Vinyl) Relics: Killed By Death- British D.I.Y.

Though I'd like to think that everyone who reads this blog is on the exact same wave-length as me, I feel that it would probably be best if I explained both halves of the subtitle of this post.

Killed By Death is series of bootlegs collecting extremely rare vintage punk singles, mirroring the model used by the Pebbles series for rare 60s garage rock. The debut volume appeared in 1989 and while it wasn't the first collection of rare late 70s/early 80s punk rock, it was the first of it's kind to spawn sequels. The first four were were put together by the same compiler and were hugely popular with punk collectors. Despite making household names out of the likes of Mad Virgins and Ebenezer and the Bludgeons, said compiler eventually dropped the project.

A few years later, another enterprising soul realized that since the series was quasi-legit (at best) bootlegs, the original complier had no rights to the name Killed By Death. So, this soul put together his own collection of rare punk and slapped Killed by Death 5 on the front. Thus, the floodgates opened and soon every punk collector with a few elusive singles in his collection was putting out a Killed By Death of his own, numerical consistency and quality control be damned. For the inside scoop on this phenomenon from one of the many bootlegers, click here.

The series peaked in the mid-90s, with over 20 seperate editions of KBD (not to mention numerous other comps with different monikers) coming out between 1995 and 1998 alone. Its impact on the garage punk scene of the mid 90s (soon to memorialized in Eric Davidson's We Never Learn) cannot be overstated. Eventually, the series petered out as the law of diminishing returns set in. There were only so many insanely-awesome, insanely-rare punk rock stompers to be unearthed.

In 1998, one compiler decided to go a slightly different route. While the well was running dry on punk singles, its artier but just as amateurish offshoot, D.I.Y. ("do-it-yourself"), was all but undocumented. So this compiler assembled this collection and renumerated the series at "Vol. 1," joking there was no way to tell which volume of the Killed By Death series was "next," so he just decided to start over again.

As for what D.I.Y. is... well, a less than elucidatory shorthand is that it's not that dissimilar to "post-punk," as that term is conventionally understood. It's actually a subset of post-punk though it tends to be more ramshackle and is much less likely to have had any kind of corporate backing than other varieties. For that matter, it's less likely to have had any kind of music industry connection at all. I'll leave it to Chuck Warner, the creator of the Messthetics series, to explain much more conclusively:
Messthetics is about something truly important and vital that really DID happen after the punters took up the cry of "punk is dead" (And no, we don't mean Joy Division.) And in its way, DIY was just as revolutionary as punk.

However proletarian punk was at the musician level (say, 70% in the U.K., 2% in the U.S.), it became business-as-usual almost instantly in terms of manufacturing and marketing. Sure, Stiff and Radar stayed independent for a couple of years, but even before the Sex Pistols got to EMI or A&M, they were cutting acetates at Abbey Road.

The Desperate Bicycles set the initial standard for the Do It Yourself alternative. To cut mastering costs in half, they pressed the same two songs on either side of their first two singles (August '77 and Feb. '78), and they recorded in one take. Younger fans may be surprised at their printed sleeves and labels [one side only, natch], but in 1978, both letter-press and offset printing were cheaper than photocopying, even in quantities of a couple hundred (although a surprising number of UK DIY 45s came in editions of 1000 or more). But the true rallying cry of DIY came from the 'Bicycles' "The Medium Was Tedium:" "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it!"

While punk fizzled in '78 in a wave of tunelessness and gobbing, more timid bands either plugged away at over-hyped (and again, tuneless) skinny-tie pop [Pleasers, Boyfriends] or diluted whatever other fresh ideas they might have had with ever-more expensive gear and slicker production values. So meanwhile John Peel and others were only too happy to play and promote the rising tide of self-produced, home-made vinyl. (The U.K. listings for Volume were chiefly compiled from Mr. Peel's archives: if a DIY record is not listed, chances are good that the band never sent him one.) But back to budgetary matters:

Bands were more likely to list their production costs than to list their band-members' names. They were highly competitive about the former...and quite egalitarian about the latter, which were frequently given only as indeterminate three-letter grunts: Gez, Baz, Kaz, Daz, Loz, Tag, Jaf, Nik, Nag, etc. (This annoying habit became a veritable art form in the Oi era, of course.)

A great deal of the DIY "sound" is characterized by wheezy unreliable keyboards. Since they'd gone utterly out of fashion and/or having been superceded by newer electronics, Voxx Continentals and Rolands and Farfisas and Fender-Rhodeses and even a few Hammonds had become as cheap or cheaper than guitars in 1978. And every crappy studio still had a rattly old piano in the corner. Other common non-punk elements are hippie-psychedelic guitar chops, and bass-lines lifted rather directly from JJ Burnel of the Stranglers (an underappreciated genius of some magnitude). Oh yeah, and hardly anyone ever worried about their tunings or musicianship...

Messthetics posits a DIY-centric universe, so this series is inclusive, not exclusive. For instance, after the DIY sound had been around for a while, certain more established or commercially successful bands began to record songs that were musically indistinguishable from the real thing. They're here. Likewise, a bunch of DIY bands recorded straight-ahead punk songs (that regularly turn up on KBD-style comps). And some of those are here, too.
This KBD volume is possibly the first attempt to contextualize this movement, predating Chuck's Messthetics. It's by no means definitive. D.I.Y. stalwarts Desperate Bicycles, the Homosexuals and early Scritti Politti are not present. Still, it's a fine introduction, collecting many excellent sides from UK D.I.Y. bands (and a ringer from New Zealand) released between 1978 and 1981. It's also one of the few Killed By Deaths not already uploaded on the web by somebody which is why I'm sharing it with you all now.

Below are a couple of representative tracks and a link to download the full album. If you like what you hear, I highly recommend you purchase one (or several) of the Messthetics comps. You can also check out the frequently-Googled post I made many moons ago on the Four Plugs, whose "Biking Girl" is #12 on an entrepreneurial gentleman's list of the top 100 D.I.Y. singles. If you're interested in the Killed By Death series as a whole, there are some fairly comprehensive lists of it and other like-minded collections like Bloodstains available online. Caveat emptor: later volumes of the series are rather dire. Stick with the first four and proceed with caution from there.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: In Lieu of a Review...'s some actual music.

Yes, it's a Tuesday. And perhaps some of you thought I might be featuring a new release. Certainly, one or two were worth mentioning. However, you probably know about them already and I generally prefer to devote this space to records that are a bit more under the radar (or, alternately, records about which I think have something particularly interesting to share.) This is sort of ironic considering that this blog is probably much more obscure than the bands themselves.

Or maybe it's just a cynical attempt to generate Google hits with timely material and offer a little quid pro quo to the publicists who keep generously sending me albums. That's something to think about as you listen to the music below.

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