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The Haul: Bitch Magnet, Kerosene 454, and Camper Van Beethoven

I hadn’t hit up this Looney Tunes location in months, in part because I’d stopped going to this area of Cambridge on a weekly basis and in part because I didn’t anticipate a sudden surge in great stock. Encountering a big “Store Closing” sign outside the store wasn’t a huge surprise or a tremendous personal disappointment, but I’m bummed whenever any independent record store closes, especially one that allows me to shoot the breeze with Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott. I usually found one or two things of interest in their just-in bin, like the vinyl pressing of Crappin’ You Negative by the Grifters, but the regular stock was worn out. There are too many used vinyl stores with that feeling of “Most of these LPs have been sitting here since 1989” (Record Swap in Urbana, please stand up) and it’s hard for me to justify regular trips to keep tabs on their new stock. The other Looney Tunes location in Boston by Berklee may not have a post-punk legend behind the counter (and when I talked with him, Prescott seemed excited about the end of his record-slinging days), but I usually find something good in their regular stock. Plus it has a better, bigger location. That also helps.

Everything in the store was 50% off, but even with the discount I couldn’t bring myself to purchase stragglers like David Grubbs’ The Thicket or This Mortal Coil’s Filigree and Shadow. I’ve been tempted by the latter because of the cover of Colin Newman’s “Alone,” but if I’m stocking up on early 1980s 4AD vinyl, I’d rather it be with Cocteau Twins LPs.

42. Bitch Magnet – Ben Hur LP+7” – Communion, 1990 – $5

Bitch Magnet's Ben Hur

Considering that I already own both Bitch Magnet CDs (Ben Hur and the combo disc of Umber + Star Booty) and the single for “Mesentery” and never listen to any of them, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to buy a vinyl copy of Ben Hur. Judging from how long the LP sat at the back of the B bin at Looney Tunes, I’m not alone in that sentiment. I considered buying it a number of times for the bonus single, but a Misfits cover doesn’t hold a candle to 50% off.

Bitch Magnet featured a number of indie rock notables, including guitarist David Grubbs of Squirrel Bait / Bastro / Gastr Del Sol and drummer Orestes Morfin of Walt Mink, but it’s the presence of bassist/vocalist Sooyoung Park that piqued my interest. I’d already gotten into Seam by the time I’d picked up Umber + Star Booty, so maybe my perspective on the two bands is skewed, but to say that Park was more suited to Seam’s fuzzed-out indie rock with whispered vocals than the Big Black-derived aggression of Bitch Magnet is an understatement. (Choice burn from Trouser Press: “Little Black.”) Morfin is a great, powerful drummer, but Ben Hur’s songwriting wanders off course on a regular basis, just like my attention. Even after I revisited Ben Hur with renewed interest from Built on a Weak Spot giving it some glowing praise, I’d still rather listen to Big Black or Seam, not a strange conglomeration of the two.

43. Kerosene 454 – Situation at Hand – Art Monk Construction, 1995 – $4

Kerosene 454's Situation at Hand

Perhaps because they weren’t on Dischord or DeSoto, Kerosene 454 isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the top tier DC acts of the mid 1990s like Fugazi, Jawbox, and Shudder to Think, or even the next set of solid groups like Dismemberment Plan, Smart Went Crazy, The Make-Up, Bluetip, and even Lungfish. It’s a common issue for DC bands, since anything not personally vouched for by Ian MacKaye or Kim Coletta could be misconstrued as a lesser light of the scene or an outcast from the typical sound. A few groups became respected on their own accord—Trans Am’s stylized future-rock found a home on Thrill Jockey; Pitchblende got critical acclaim, if not a lasting legacy for their art-punk with releases on Cargo and Jade Tree—but there’s a definite tendency for non-Dischord/DeSoto DC groups to get lost in the shuffle, like Durian’s excellent self-released Sometimes You Scare Me and Bald Rapunzel’s Resin-released Diazepam. I don’t hold anything against MacKaye for Dischord’s stated aim to document the history of the DC scene—imagine if more cities had the benefit of a long-term enabler and historian—but it’s important to remember that there are plenty of great bands and memorable records outside of its roster.

Kerosene 454 released three full-lengths and a number of singles, but prior to grabbing Situation at Hand, I only had Two for Flinching, their debut slab of wax from 1993. In the two years leading up to Situation at Hand, drummer Darren Zentek (now throttling his kit in Channels and Report Suspicious Activity) joined up and gave the group a centerpiece performer. I might’ve listened to Two for Flinching once and filed it away in the “mediocre DC post-hardcore” pile, but with Zentek in the fold, Kerosene 454 has a focused, muscular charge, utilizing some of the brutal force typical to early 1990s Touch and Go albums. Once I hit the fake-out feedback ending halfway through opener “Greener,” I knew I’d waited too long to get into this group. The epic closer “Year in Rails” clocks in at eight and a half minutes, pushing and pulling until fracturing into knotty strings of feedback. Vocals switch between the melodic arcs of “Rideout Health” and “June” and the strained bellow of “Pointer Ridge” and “Intro,” but there aren’t a lot of hooks lingering after Situation’s over. I suspect that their final two albums, 1996’s Came by to Kill Me and 1998’s At Zero, feature more polished vocals and crisper guitar hooks, but the raw energy of Situation at Hand is no mere dry run for future success.

Situation at Hand came out on Art Monk Construction, a now defunct Pennsylvania label focusing on post-hardcore and emo records, and was later reissued with the group’s early singles as Race on Polyvinyl Records. Came by to Kill Me was a split release from Slowdime, a label eventually co-run by K454 bassist John Wall, and Dischord, but those split releases aren’t Dischord canon. (Kerosene 454 and other split-release groups aren’t listed on the label’s own roster, but you can buy their last two records through the label’s online store.) At Zero went back to Slowdime exclusively. From an outsider’s perspective, associated or distributed labels like Slowdime feel like the DC minor leagues*, and it’s a shame I waited so long to check Kerosene 454 out because of this perception.

*One final note: I don’t mean to slight Slowdime, Resin, or Durian’s Diver City, but instead I’d like to thank them for putting out records I still enjoy. Running small indie labels is a particularly thankless job, especially in monetary compensation, but virtually every one I’ve dealt with continues because of their unwavering belief in the music they’re releasing. Not having the same profile as Dischord, Matador, or Kill Rock Stars doesn’t mean that belief is unfounded.

44. Camper Van Beethoven – Telephone Free Landslide Victory – Independent Project, 1985 – $5

Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory

Camper Van Beethoven has benefitted from the “When it rains, it pours” philosophy to record shopping (cf. 1980s Wire LPs, Cocteau Twins LPs). I bought their third album, 1986’s Camper Van Beethoven, and their fourth album, 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, last fall, but ended up listening more to my downloaded copy of II and III on my iPod than either of those physical pressings. I’d planned on spending time with those two albums before picking up their earlier work or 1989’s Key Lime Pie, but finding their debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory and the aforementioned II and III for 50% off was too good to pass up. (Their 1987 collaboration with eccentric free jazz protest singer Eugene Chadbourne, appropriately named Camper Van Chadbourne, wasn’t tempting enough to justify a trifecta.) Getting their first four LPs for approximately $25 total is a coup, but it’s a lot of CVB to digest.

Telephone Free Landslide Victory is far more accomplished debut than I anticipated. I’d expected their early records to demonstrate a variety of influences and styles, but not the songwriting needed to merge them into a cohesive album, but that’s not the case. For every Russian folk instrumental led by Jonathan Segel’s violin or short blast of Southwestern-influenced ska, there’s a bitingly sarcastic college rocker with those (and countless other) styles bleeding in on the edges. “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” “Opie Rides Again – Club Med Sucks” (which features the brilliant chorus “Club Med sucks / Authority sucks / I hate golf / I don’t wanna play lacrosse”), and “Where the Hell Is Bill?” provide plenty of incisive laughs and the requisite melodies to keep them from being mere novelty songs. (“Take the Skinheads Bowling” would have made for a great split single with the Dead Milkmen’s “Takin’ Retards to the Zoo.”) The countrified cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” is another piss-take on the reigning youth culture, something Black Flag did in their own songs, but not to their own songs. Telephone Free Landslide Victory strikes a great balance between humor and stylistic exploration, like a collegiate version of the Dead Milkmen’s junior high shenanigans.

45. Camper Van Beethoven – II and III – Pitch-a-tent, 1986 – $6

Camper Van Beethoven's II & III

Camper Van Beethoven’s second album, the semi-appropriately titled II and III, takes a different approach to humor than its predecessor. Few, if any, of these songs are as openly jokey as “Take the Skinheads Bowling” or “Opie Rides Again – Club Med Sucks,” opting instead for a comparably subtler approach like naming an instrumental “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt,” reversing the vocals on “Circles,” or filling a song called “No More Bullshit” with plenty of bullshit classic rock noodling. Part of me misses the open humor (the part that listened to the Dead Milkmen obsessively in junior high), but II and III improves upon almost all other aspects of their debut. More interesting and varied instrumentals, more affecting songs (especially the plaintive country of “Sad Lovers Waltz”), and better pacing help the nineteen tracks (23 if you bought the 2004 Cooking Vinyl reissue CD) fly by. Still, nothing stood out quite as much as those two Telephone Free songs I mentioned earlier, meaning that II and III is a better album, but Telephone Free has better mix tape selections.

Record Collection Reconciliation: Thee Speaking Canaries, Camper Van Beethoven, The Darling Buds, Volcano Suns, Funkadelic

51. Thee Speaking Canaries - Life-Like Homes - Scat, 1998

Thee Speaking Canaries' Life-Like Homes

Why I Bought It: Even though I enjoy Don Caballero’s albumsDon Caballero II and What Burns Never Returns in particular—I’d never checked out Damon Che’s other group, Thee Speaking Canaries. Maybe I’d taken a thousand drummer jokes to heart, maybe I was concerned that Damon Che’s rather antagonistic stage demeanor (an understatement to say the least) wouldn’t translate well to his frontman role in this group, maybe those Van Halen comparisons (and covers!) scared me off, but no matter how many times I saw Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged in CD bins, I passed it up.

After seeing one of their LPs at RRRecords in Lowell, I told my friend Scott about it and he attested to Thee Speaking Canaries’ greatness. Shortly thereafter, he swung by Amoeba in San Francisco and picked up Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged and Life-Like Homes for me and mailed them out as a birthday gift. I don’t want to think of what I’d do with such close proximity to the heralded Amoeba—I’ve only been to San Francisco once and didn’t make it to the store—but I’d like to believe that I’d share the privilege as well as Scott does. More likely, I’d run up a ton of credit card debt and have to quit cold turkey.

Verdict: Given his propensity for dramatics—nailing down his drum kit, performing in his boxers, kicking out band members—it’s difficult to enjoy Damon Che’s music without appreciating the utmost gall with which he approaches it, and Life-Like Homes is no exception to this rule. Putting just three songs on a rock record requires some stones, especially when it requires splitting up the twenty-seven minutes of “The Last Side of Town” over side A and B. Proving that dealing with his gall isn’t unrewarded, the split even makes sense, with the song’s math-rock explorations and drifting noise segments coming on side A before blasting back to melodic, overdriven rock with part two on side B. It’s a bit of a shock to hear Damon Che yell “Woo!” before launching into a Van Halen–esque guitar solo on part two, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

It’s tempting to focus on how Che can switch between being a technically accomplished, powerhouse drummer in Don Caballero and a guitar-shredding frontman with surprisingly melodic vocals in Thee Speaking Canaries, to emphasize that he can pull off both roles, but that approach loses sight of what Life-Like Homes has to offer beyond Che’s signature gall. Between the enthusiastic arena/math hybrid of “The Last Side of Town (Completion),” the noisy bluster on the title track, and the mid-tempo melodies of “Song for Fucking Damon,” these songs hold up to multiple listens. (I already know this because I initially listened to side B first.) The combination of arena rock panache and math-rock precision is particularly compelling, making me wish that more ’90s math-oriented groups showed an extroverted side.

As much as I enjoy Life-Like Homes, I might have been better off ignoring Thee Speaking Canaries’ existence from a collector’s perspective. Che pressed both lo- and hi-fi versions of Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged (the former on Mind Cure, the latter on Scat), released the 1996 Opponents EP in an edition of 400 numbered copies (one is on eBay for $89 right now), and issued two versions of Get Out Alive, their 2004 album, a vinyl pressing of 39 minutes and a CD pressing of 76 minutes (which contains two songs from Life-Like Homes). Have I mentioned their long out-of-print 1992 debut The Joy of Wine? 500 copies are out there, somewhere. Good luck tracking all of this down.

2. Camper Van Beethoven - Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart - Virgin, 1988

Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

Why I Bought It: I knew of Camper Van Beethoven through David Lowery’s post-CVB group Cracker, whose bitter mid-1990s buzz bin hits “Low,” “Euro-Trash Girl” (I hate even thinking of that song), and “I Hate My Generation” were staples of 120 Minutes. Nothing had pushed me toward hearing them, however, until Floodwatchmusic listed II & III as his favorite record of 1986. Although I haven’t come across an LP copy of that record (update: yes, I have), I picked up their self-titled LP from Looney Tunes in Boston and then grabbed Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart from either RRRecords or Mystery Train last fall.

Verdict: Even though this album marked the beginning of Camper Van Beethoven’s stay on Virgin, I was nevertheless surprised by the polish of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, in both production values and performances. There are some hot guitar licks on this record! Once I accepted the major label sheen, I realized that the general aesthetic isn’t too far off from another eclectically styled 1980s group, the Mekons, especially given the fiddle. It’ll be interesting to see how much their self-titled LP differs from this album; even with their edges smoothed over, there’s still a good amount of spontaneity in a few of these songs, although none of that spontaneity could be misconstrued as ramshackle charm. (Terror Twilight it ain’t, thankfully.) It’s too bad the LP didn’t come with a lyrics sheet, since I recall hearing some choice lines in great tracks like “She Divines Water” and “Life Is Grand,” but the album as a whole was solid enough to merit another listen in the near future.

53. The Darling Buds - Shame on You - Native, 1989

The Darling Buds' Shame on You

Why I Bought It: I tend to pull things out of dollar bins that look like records I might be interested in, even if I’m completely unfamiliar with the band name. The Darling Buds’ Shame on You is a prime example of this tendency; I even have one of the twelve-inch singles that’s represented on this singles compilation thanks to a similar purchase. The colorful, ultra-saturated cover isn’t too far off from My Bloody Valentine’s album-art aesthetic, which makes sense given its release in the late 1980s, but there’s a more specific pop/shoegaze reference that came up once I put the needle down.

Verdict: The British Velocity Girl. The Darling Buds came first, of course, being inspired by the C86 cassette and scene, just like Velocity Girl (who took their name from Primal Scream’s contribution to the cassette), so the comparison is admittedly backwards, but from the opening strains of the title track I could think of no other point of reference. I remember buying Velocity Girl’s Simpatico from a cheap bin in high school and being overwhelmed by the chipper vocals and perky melodies. (I’m just not a power-pop fanatic.) I never got around to giving their debut, Copacetic, a chance, but I imagine it’s got fuzzier guitars and less defined hooks. As for the Darling Buds, they’re essentially a hybrid of C86-styled pop and the Go-Go’s. When the songs lean toward the former, like “That’s the Reason,” I can stomach it, but when they sound closer to latter, like “Valentine” and too many other songs, I begin to rethink my cover art policy for dollar bins.

54. Volcano Suns - All-Night Lotus Party - Homestead, 1986

Volcano Suns' All-Night Lotus Party

Why I Bought It: Along with a previously discussed Bullet Lavolta LP, I found two Volcano Suns LPs at a Champaign record sale a few years back. I wasn’t hugely into Mission of Burma at the time, but I probably knew that their drummer, Peter Prescott, had been a member of Volcano Suns following his initial stay in Burma. No excuse for waiting this long to listen to either of the records (I also have The Bright Orange Years on my shelf), but with their recent reissues on Merge, I’ve read a considerable amount about these records in the past few months. Plus, I see Prescott whenever I stop into the Cambridge location of Looney Tunes.

Verdict: Thanks to the recent surge of reviews, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect from All-Night Lotus Party: a more straightforward, less atmospheric version of Burma’s art-punk. Considering that I have to be in a certain mood to enjoy most of Burma’s catalog (with the exception of the early singles and most of The Obliterati, which is heavier on the pop hooks), a more approachable version of the group’s sound shouldn’t be viewed as a slight. All-Night Lotus Party is filled with abrasive, hard-edged art-punk—material that could (and probably did) inspire countless early 1990s Touch and Go groups—but a number of the songs lack memorable hooks amidst their steamrolling verses and shouted choruses. According to Pitchfork, The Bright Orange Years has more of these hooks, so I should give that album a spin and see how it compares, but “Engines” and “Village Idiot” stuck out on my first spin of All-Night Lotus Party. The album doesn’t lack energy or aggression, however, especially the album’s final salvo, “Bonus Hidden Mystery Track,” which one-ups any number of contemporary hardcore bands.

55. Funkadelic - One Nation Under a Groove - Warner, 1978

Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove

Why I Bought It: My introduction to George Clinton was the Animal House redux PCU, which I inevitably got sucked into whenever it came on HBO during high school. (Part of a larger trend of me getting sucked into mediocre-to-awful movies, but I digress.) The film’s huge party scene comes courtesy of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, who were directed to Jeremy Piven’s party-to-end-all-parties by Jon Favreau’s stoned assistance. Favreau doesn’t realize exactly whom he’s helped until partway into their truncated set (damn those deans!), at which point he freaks out and goes wild. A clichéd scene, but I give the filmmakers some credit: Imagine if it had been G. Love and Special Sauce or some other mid-90s party band.

I found this worn copy of One Nation Under a Groove in a dollar bin, missing its original bonus EP (the Heavy Maggot Disk) and coming with enough surface scratches to make me think twice, but I knew that I needed to buy it in case of any future party emergencies. You can’t count on encountering Clinton’s broken down tour bus whenever you’re throwing the biggest party in campus history.

(Or when you’re enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon with the AC on.)

Verdict: Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove is a great instance of fulfilled expectations. Nothing threw me for a loop on the record, but I still found myself getting into the vast majority of the songs, enough to research other good Parliament and/or Funkadelic albums and add them to my eventual want list. Only the lower energy “Groovallegiance” left me wanting, but the title track, “Into You,” “Cholly (Funk Getting Ready to Roll!!),” and “Who Says a Funk Bank Can’t Play Rock?!” could have gone on much, much longer without any complaint. As I feared, the record’s in pretty bad shape, but the raunchy cartoon liner notes are in fine condition. I'll gladly buy a second copy of this album.