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Reviews: Implodes' Black Earth

Implodes' Black Earth

When I first heard Implodes’ Black Earth, I assumed Kranky Records had pulled its woozy strains of droning psych-rock out of the ether. I’d listened to the record a few times before I learned that one of Implodes’ guitarist/vocalists (trust me, the guitars come before the vocals on Black Earth) is Matt Jencik, formerly of math-rock groups Hurl, Taking Pictures, Don Caballero, and Thee Speaking Canaries. Suddenly, the title of “Song for Fucking Damon II (Trap Door)” made considerably more sense, a callback to Thee Speaking Canaries’ “Song for Fucking Damon” on Life-Like Homes.

Yet this connection offers practically no illumination on the dark terrain of Black Earth, except to identify what it is not. (Guitarist/vocalist Ken Camden’s 2010 Kranky LP Lethargy & Repercussion is a somewhat closer stylistic kin.) Implodes do not engage in time-signature workouts. Five of the album’s eleven tracks eschew percussion entirely. Instead, Black Earth thrives on an evocative haze of layered guitars. Lead track “Open the Door” maps out a landscape of strummed acoustic guitar, electric echoes, and distant distortion. Black Earth is a record of guitar tones, first and foremost, and Implodes craft a range of compelling sounds throughout. Songs like “Oxblood” and “Down Time” are welcome additions to Kranky’s canon of droning guitar compositions.

That isn’t to say that Black Earth lacks tangible songwriting. “Marker” obscures its vocals to the point of unintelligibility, but its billowing riffs translate the menace. “Meadowlands” kicks off the second side with a dose of propulsive psych-rock, highlighted by haunting vocals and keyboard punctuation. Closing track “Hands on the Rail” pairs the gothic doom of its spoken vocals with some of Black Earth’s finest guitar work.

This balance between guitar drones and psych-rock maintains Black Earth’s dark, menacing atmosphere. I could wax poetic about the world Implodes creates here—a thick forest at dusk, dark arts practiced around a dying fire, animal blood marking abandoned trails—but the important point is Black Earth encourages such mental pictures. Few debut LPs, even from groups with math-rock elite in their ranks, appear so fully formed.

The Haul: Gordon Withers' Gordon Withers

Shortly after my previous post about Gordon Withers’ funding drive for the mastering and pressing of this album, Withers thankfully reached his goal, which resulted in the MP3s being delivered to my inbox a few months ago and the LP being delivered to my house earlier this week. It’s nice to see my name on the back of a vinyl sleeve, especially when it’s accompanied by such great music.

121. Gordon Withers – Gordon Withers LP/MP3 – Self-released, 2009 – $10

Gordon Withers' self-titled LP

Most of the discussion of Gordon Withers’ music has been focused on the circumstances surrounding its release, whether it’s the Callum Robbins benefit album of Jawbox covers or the Kickstarter funding drive for this release, that the actual music might have been overlooked. While I’d be amiss to ignore the fact that such a blindspot might have happened anyway—after all, it’s instrumental solo cello that we’re talking about—Withers’ combination of covers and originals deserves more than a passing spin.

I’ll tackle the five covers first. I was familiar with four of the five songs—the Notwist’s “One with the Freaks” being the lone exception—and if step one for a successful covers record is having inspired material, Withers nailed it. The Notwist cover reminds me that I slept on Neon Golden for too long, but a viewing of the “One for the Freaks” video establishes two things: first, they’re far more rock and less electronic than I remembered, second, Withers does an excellent job cello-izing the song’s vocal melody. Chavez’s “Unreal Is Here” always struck me as overwhelmingly melodic and surprisingly mellow for such an angular indie rock group, a statement that, “Yes, we can also do this style of music better than you’d ever imagine.” Because of this emphasis on melody and mood, it’s an easy, yet rewarding translation. (Note: “Tight Around the Jaws” would make for a real badass cover, as well. And don’t get me started on “Wakeman’s Air.”) Don Caballero’s “For Respect” benefits from the absence of drums, since there’s more than enough to replicate from the guitars and bass. (Plus, forcing his brother Stephen to step into Damon Che’s shoes seems like cruel and unusual punishment.) It’s the most technically impressive cover here, handling both the rigid riffs of the opening and the strafing runs of its close with equal aplomb. Burning Airlines’ “Flood of Foreign Capital” features J. Robbins on glockenspiel (he produced the album and appears throughout, but helping cover his own song is a nice touch), but Stephen Withers’ layers of percussion steal the show. Finally, “Forget” isn’t the first Mission of Burma song I’d suspect to be covered, but it closes the album with involving interplay between Withers’ multitracked cello and Robbins’ piano. It also reminds me that I need to listen to more of those then-posthumous MOB compilations.

I’m interested to see how many people took Withers up on the “Pick a song for me to cover” option, since those songs could easily comprise a nice mini-album. I know Jon Mount tasked Withers with Juno’s “The Young Influentials,” which should be wonderful, and someone else signed him up for a Jets to Brazil cover, but if I can accurately extrapolate his taste in music to his audience’s, I bet there are some other excellent songs in the queue.

There’s a necessary give and take between the covers and the originals, since it’s hard not to get excited about hearing a new version of “Unreal Is Here” or “For Respect” and that’s likely what draws listeners like myself to Withers in the first place, but what impressed me the most about Gordon Withers was the strength of the original songs. These songs combine classical approaches and indie rock structures. “Cast into the Sky” builds into a cacophonous peak before distilling this dissonant streak into a somber ending. The first half of “Revolving Doors” could easily be a cover of a long-lost uptempo indie rock song, but it’s the mid-song course correction into flowing melodies and slower tempos that sets the song apart. “Memories of the Future” is the closest the LP comes to chamber music, turning its foreboding deep line into a swirling undertow before letting it drift off into regret. “Defenestrations of Prague” is the clear highlight of the LP, a six-minute-long track loaded with starts and stops, sawing countermelodies, and energetic crescendos. “Defenestrations” proves that Withers has absorbed compositional tricks from the artists he covers and determined their best usage for cello.

Returning to the surface view of this album, Withers has done a remarkable job of getting people interested in his music, which I can’t imagine is an easy task for a solo cellist. The Jawbox covers album was an excellent introduction to his performances, as well as being a benefit for Callum Robbins, and Gordon Withers is a perfect next step, balancing covers and originals with equal weight. It’ll be interesting to see how his own work progresses as he spends more time as a member of J Robbins’ new band, Office of Future Plans, helming Quadruplestop, his four-person cello group, and contributing to We All Inherit the Moon, an ambient/post-rock group from various parts of the country, but if Gordon Withers is any indication, overlooking his own releases would be a huge mistake.

The Haul: Don Caballero, Bedhead, Tar, Dumptruck, Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio

I was disappointed to learn that the Fremont location of Sonic Boom Records closed in February, since it had a vinyl annex that provided me with two Lungfish LPs in my previous trip to Seattle. The vinyl annex was divided up between the remaining stores in Capitol Hill and Ballard, which helped bolster this store’s stock. No jaw-droppers, but a number of nice finds. Bonus points for nice employees who played the Jealous Sound’s Kill Them with Kindness and talked about how they’d recently gotten into the now-disbanded Aereogramme. I wish the staff at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square played older records more often instead of their usual hip new bands, but I imagine you sell more records their way.

28. Don Caballero – For Respect LP – Touch & Go, 1993 – $9

Don Caballero's For Respect

Between Don Caballero and Thee Speaking Canaries, I’ve written quite a bit about Damon Che lately, but I hopefully haven’t exhausted my reserves of 1990s math-rock banter. For Respect is comprised primarily of short, forceful songs, many not passing the three-minute mark, which comes in stark contrast to their later efforts. I tend to prefer the longer tracks like “Well Built Road” and “New Laws” that stretch out and explore a few different moods, but the shorter tracks show some variety, like the aptly titled “Subdued Confections.”

What stands out is how “traditional” the guitars sound in comparison to what Ian Williams and Mike Banfield throw together for 2. I use traditional with no slight to the technical accomplishments here, but these songs use beefy chord progressions and more typical lead lines, not the finger-tapped leads, feedback bursts, and disorienting chord battles of their next record. (The air raid siren effect that begins “Dick Suffers Is Furious with You” is still terrifying.) In retrospect it’s amusing how long it took for other math-rock groups to make that transition, since For Respect, not 2, is the blueprint for most 1990s math-rock, but that’s why they’re the Don.

29. Bedhead – WhatFunLifeWas LP – Trance Syndicate, 1993 – $9

Bedhead's WhatFunLifeWas

The subtlety and low-key nature of the Kadane Brothers took ages to grow on me, but after seeing The New Year open for Bottomless Pit last year, I was finally converted. I’ve been working backwards through their catalog, progressing from The New Year’s solid self-titled LP to their excellent The End Is Near (the anti-title track “The End’s Not Near” is astonishingly good) to their debut, Newness Ends, which I had apparently purchased on CD when it first came out. Taking the next step back to Bedhead was harder, since Transaction de Novo was my stumbling block for years, but I’ve found similar rewards with their releases. Transaction balances Seam-like indie rock (“Psychosomatica”) with their signature slow crawl (“Lepidoptera”) better than I remembered.

I hadn’t made it back to the beginning when I found this copy of their debut LP, but I didn’t know whether Touch and Go had recently repressed the vinyl or if this was a lingering copy of the original Trance Syndicate pressing, so I snapped it up for a cheap nine bucks. (Trance Syndicate ended around the time of the big Butthole Surfers / Touch and Go feud, but I’ve seen plenty of copies of the self-titled Trail of Dead LP floating around lately.) WhatFunLifeWas isn’t too far off from Transaction de Novo. It betrays a larger debt to the Velvet Underground, occasionally thrashes about (“Haywire”), and lacks some of their carefully arranged guitar patterns, but it’s a Kadane Brothers album through and through. The production sounds close to Seam’s gloriously fuzzy The Problem with Me, but it never comes off quite as wistful as Sooyoung Park’s group.

30. Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante LP – Plain, 2008 (1995) – $17

Mr. Bungle's Disco Volante

Fun fact: I remember seeing the original pressing of Disco Volante (with the bonus 7”) during one of my first trips to Reckless Records, but scoffed at the $18 price tag. Whoops. It rocketed up to $70 to $100 on eBay shortly thereafter. I’d waited patiently for this reissue to come out, so I gladly did my double-dipping duty when I found it in Seattle. Smart move, right?

Wait a second, there’s another pressing of this reissue LP with the bonus 7” included? That one’s colored vinyl, too. I can’t justify triple-dipping, even with a premier reissue pressing floating around. Screw you, Plain Recordings.

Disco Volante is certainly the most challenging Mr. Bungle album, veering between dramatically different styles and approaches, but it’s hard to call it my favorite. I have to be in a very particular mood to hear “Violenza Domestica,” for instance, whereas I can play California in most mental states. Hopefully that album will earn a vinyl pressing to coincide with the reissues of Mr. Bungle and Disco Volante, since I’ll gladly own all three.

31. Tar – Toast LP – Touch & Go, 1993 – $5

Tar's Toast

I was indirectly familiar with Tar because of their split single with Jawbox, in which they covered each other’s songs (Jawbox’s cover of “Static” appears on My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents), but Tar’s history leaves little doubt to their aesthetic. Having released albums on both Amphetamine Reptile and Touch and Go, I expected aggressive songs with heavy, metallic riffs, pounding rhythms and monotone vocals and Tar delivers in spades. They even played custom aluminum guitars. The Touch and Go albums are unsurprisingly a bit more melodic than the AmRep releases according to Amazon reviews, but don’t think that Toast isn’t littered with handclaps and falsetto background hooks. This is muscular, abrasive stuff, like a harder-edged sibling to fellow Touch and Go band Arcwelder. This pressing of Toast is a picture disc LP with a blowtorched piece of toast on one side and the normal cover image of hazardous chemicals on the other. Inviting.

32. Dumptruck – D Is for Dumptruck LP – Incas, 1983 – $2

Dumptruck's D Is for Dumptruck

I’ve seen a few Dumptruck LPs in Boston-area record stores, but never for two bucks, so I snapped up this worn copy of their 1983 debut. A few of the songs sound like a less abrasive version of Mission of Burma, especially the great opener “How Come,” but usually they’re closer to the jangle of early R.E.M. than the art-punk of their fellow Massachusetts natives. Other dominant 1980s indie/college rock touchstones like the Feelies also apply, but there’s enough tension in the songwriting to let me look past the occasionally dry instrumental mix. I’d expected more of a jangle-pop sound, but the fringes of post-punk keep me interested.

This excellent article on Perfect Sound Forever relates the group’s label troubles: Bigtime Records tried to sell the band’s contract to a major label, despite that contract having already expired. The band and its lawyer reported this situation to the major, but Bigtime sued the group for five million dollars. While the band ultimately prevailed in court, being tied up in litigation sapped virtually all of their energy and killed any buzz from their successful 1988 album, For the Country. Its follow-up, Days of Fear, was recorded in 1991 but not released until 1995. Their first three LPs and a best-of have been issued on Rykodisc.

33. Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio – Inland Empires CD – Moneyshot, 2000 – $6

Joel R. L. Phelps and the Downer Trio's Inland Empires

I’d talked about the wildly underappreciated Joel R. L. Phelps with a friend of mine prior to leaving for this trip, so finding a copy of Inland Empires, which she ranked as one of her favorites, was a nice semi-surprise. (Phelps is based in the Northwest, so I half-expected to find this CD.) I usually prefer Phelps’s more rocking, Crazy Horse–influenced albums, especially Blackbird, but Inland Empires proves that he's equally good at gut-wrenching ballads.

Inland Empires came out shortly after the death of Phelps’s sister, to whom the heartbreaking “Now You Are Found” is dedicated. The song traces the signposts of their relationship and I can’t fathom the level of care he put into the lyrics and performance. Fittingly, it’s the only Phelps original on the EP, accompanied by six covers of songs, including Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” which is the second song from Rumours Phelps has covered. Silkworm recorded an enthusiastic version of “The Chain” for an early single during Phelps’s tenure in that group. The other five covers include excellent cover of the Go-Betweens’ “Apology Accepted” and songs by Townes Van Zandt, Iris Dement, and Steve Earle. I’d put off listening to this EP in its entirety for years, knowing the story about Phelps’s sister and how painful that song would be, but Inland Empires is a remarkably cohesive album for having six covers and one tremendously personal original.

Those interested in more Joel R. L. Phelps covers would be wise to track down the 2CD edition of Customs, which features a bonus disc with covers of Joy Division’s “Twenty Four Hours,” The Chills’ “Pink Frost,” and three others. Phelps also covered The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” on his self-titled EP and Comsat Angels’ “Lost Continent” on Blackbird, to mention a few highlights. I’d love to hear new material from Phelps, who’s gone into hiding since Customs, but even another batch of covers would be quite welcome.

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.

The Haul: Shannon Wright, The Forms, Don Caballero, Papa M, and Mock Orange

Receipt of trip to Reckless Records Broadway location

I first hit up Reckless Records in Chicago during the fall of my freshman year at the University of Illinois during a road trip up for some concert. Mogwai and Ganger? Dismemberment Plan and Turing Machine? Not sure which, but the former makes sense because of the store’s proximity to the Metro. I was still in the mode of bulk purchasing and I could not fathom more titles to look through or a larger dollar bin. The liners-only method of displaying titles was new to me and seemed absolutely brilliant. Between the dollar CDs and the .50 cent singles, I got countless titles that I’d only vaguely heard of, furthering my dollar-bin strategy developed at Rhino Records in New Paltz during high school. The difference was that Reckless hid singles by bands I genuinely enjoyed—the 12 Inch Records singles for Dis- and Love Cup, for example—in the unorganized bins beneath the LPs.

It essentially turned into buying music by the pound. I recall coming out of the Broadway location with a bag straining at the handles with something like ten CDs, seven seven-inches, and five LPs for around $80. A haul for the ages. I was so overwhelmingly proud of myself. Unfortunately, it became nearly impossible to go with anyone else because I wanted to be so thorough. When you live two and a half hours away and are without a car, it’s better to be somewhat deferential to your friends. It took me a few trips to learn this lesson.

This time around I had an afternoon to myself and the two main Chicago record stores (and the Winter Classic rink at Wrigley Field, which was already being dismantled and off limits). I’d done my research my searching the online Reckless catalog for pertinent titles, so I knew some of what awaited me. The main issue, however, was that my current record shopping strategy—buying new vinyl from active artists, used vinyl if it’s out of print, avoiding CDs whenever possible, not spending too much time in seven-inch bins—runs counter to my prior experiences with Reckless, hence this limited haul. Don’t worry; I reverted back to classic form at the Milwaukee location.

Shannon Wright's Perishable Goods EP

3. Shannon Wright – Perishable Goods CD – Quarterstick, 2001 – $9

Perishable Goods is an apt title for this EP. In addition to being a limited edition release in a cardboard sleeve, the musical contents are somewhat more ephemeral than Wright’s usual offerings. Highlighted by “Azalea,” a duet with Crooked Fingers/Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann, and an excellent cover of the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke,” it was the second-to-last Shannon Wright release I needed to track down (excluding Crowsdell), meaning that the single for “A Junior Hymn” (backed with a cover of The Smiths’ “Asleep”) is the lone straggler. I still need to hear the Low version of “I Started a Joke,” since Low and Wright were touring partners at one point, but I do have Faith No More’s cover to fall back on.

The Forms' Self-Titled LP

4. The Forms – The Forms LP – Threespheres, 2007 – $15

I’d checked out the Forms’ self-titled second album when it was released in 2007, in part because Built on a Weak Spot lavished such high praise on it, but my fondness for their smooth guitar melodies was tempered by Alex Tween’s penchant for repeating lines ad nauseam. Yet the album reminded me enough of Castor’s self-titled debut in both guitar tones and song structures that I kept giving it chances and ended up including the brief, elliptical “Oberlin” on my year-end mix for 2007.

I’d largely given up on getting past my block on Tween’s vocal style until two recent events changed my course. First, the group was included in a list of bands heavily indebted to Shudder to Think, which caused me to rethink their song structures and lyrics. Second, BOAWS posted a Forms cover of Billy Joel’s infamous “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from the Guilt by Association Vol. 2 compilation. Between the humming, post-punk bass line, the smart changes to vocal melodies and delivery, and the gall of the song choice, I had to give The Forms credit and another chance.

While fifteen bucks for a new single LP is a bit steep (another instance where I would’ve saved money if I’d mail-ordered it direct from Threespheres, but Somerville mail thieves have instilled me with deep-rooted caution), my decision to pick it up was validated by a listen to the album on my iPod yesterday. After getting past a few repetitive vocal phases, I finally responded to the songs like I expected when I first read BOAWS’s recommendation. Plus, a vinyl-only bonus track!

Don Caballero's 2 LP

5. Don Caballero – Don Caballero 2 2LP – Touch & Go, 1995 – $13

A brief history lesson: Don Caballero started out on 1993’s For Respect with muscular, drum-centric math-rock and pushed that blueprint to its limits on 1995’s Don Caballero 2, making one of the most unrelenting, challenging documents of the genre. 1998’s What Burns Never Returns managed to be both more listenable and weirder, finding new ways to wrangle chord changes out of guitars. Ian Williams then eliminated most of the distortion and jarring guitar angles on the largely clean American Don. There’s an arc to these four records,* one that I’m grossly paraphrasing, but each record contributed something new to the group’s approach. Some of this progression is owed to member turnover, especially Williams’ transition from second guitarist to primary guitarist, but I credit Don Caballero with pushing the genre forward in that eight-year span, perhaps even bringing it to its logical conclusion.

Grabbing Don Caballero 2 was long overdue, but I hadn’t seen it on vinyl before. Beyond that, I was happy listening to my CD copy of What Burns Never Returns, since I think it strikes the best balance among the four main Don Caballero albums and their singles compilation. But 2 might be the finest document of instrumental math-rock’s extreme limits. There have been plenty of great math-rock records, but it’s essentially a genre of technical precision and balls-out aggression, both of which are pushed to the brink here.

*Yes, Damon Che “reformed” Don Caballero and released two albums with the new line-up, but neither of those albums deserves to tarnish the arc of Don Caballero MK. 1.

Papa M's Hole of Burning Alms LP

6. Papa M – Hole of the Burning Alms 2LP – Drag City, 2004 – $8

Between the two Reckless locations I had some options for a David Pajo vinyl fix, including the out-of-print LP of Aerial M and the 2LP of Live from a Shark Cage. While the former ($13) hit my collector scum nerve and “I Am Not Lonely with Cricket” from the latter ($13 used, $16 new) is a pleasant fifteen minutes of low-key guitar musings, I opted for value with the money with the 2LP singles compilationHole of Burning Alms. Of course it includes the M Is… single, which I already own, but there’s enough other material here to keep me busy and mildly interested for more than an hour. I’d stopped buying as many mellow post-rock records because I wasn’t finding enough time to listen to them for their desired purpose—background material for reading—but hopefully this album will accompany that activity in the near future.

Side note: I’d almost forgotten about Pajo’s time in Billy Corgan’s Zwan project, in which he accompanied Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney for what I imagine was a nice paycheck. According to the group’s Wikipedia page, the group’s fallout seems far more interesting than their actual music (watered-down Smashing Pumpkins), since Corgan calls the other members “dirty, filthy people who have no self-respect or class” (presumably excepting drummer Jimmy Chamberlain) and holds particular spite for Pajo, who was presumably shacking up with bassist Paz Lenchantin during their tours. He also says that Zwan will never, ever reform, which breaks the hearts of millions of fans across the globe.

Mock Orange's Nines & Sixes LP

7. Mock Orange – Nines & Sixes LP – Boiled Music, 1998 – $5

Nines & Sixes is Mock Orange’s “debut” album, i.e. the first album they’d like you to associate with their career. It’s actually their third album, after 1995’s Open Sunday and 1997’s self-titled release, but they claim that those albums were just practice. While I scoff at such revisionist history, I have to wonder how many bands in the MySpace era will be just as embarrassed by their early releases, considering the negligible cost of home recording and CD-R or MP3 distribution.

Despite owning a dollar bin CD copy (which I’d completely forgotten about), I can only vaguely recall having heard a few songs from Nines & Sixes, which sticks to poppy emo-punk of their earlier work. Those looking for the quirky, Modest Mouse/Superchunk influence from the excellent First EP and Mind Is Not Brain should start with The Record Play.