Should I even use the word “reunited” in reference to Polvo anymore? Since their 2008 reformation, they’ve reworked their back catalog for live sets, released an excellent LP in 2009’s In Prism, and rather suddenly re-emerged with this single. Unlike a certain reunited band who’s remained in set-list stasis for eight years now, Polvo’s too restless to stand still.
“Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress” heralds the group’s as-yet untitled new album, due on Merge Records in an as-yet unannounced timeframe. The a-side, available for streaming here, splits the difference between the mid-tempo pace of Dave Brylawski’s three contributions to In Prism and the driving guitar loops of “Beggar’s Bowl.” Brylawski’s vocal melodies have improved, the energy level is up, and the presence of both sitar and electronic strings (reminiscent of Helium’s The Magic City) makes perfect sense. “Heavy Detour” bodes well for that upcoming LP.
Ash Bowie’s “Anchoress” takes a more ponderous route, exploring one of Bowie’s intractable, vaguely unsettling narratives with lyrics like “The seasons turn and she fashions a shrine / Arranging all the apples in symmetrical lines.” Lighthearted keyboards cut through the atmosphere, but the song’s keyed by its tense closing jam, which threatens to run long before a 45-enforced fade-out.
The alternate take of “Anchoress,” available as a digital download with purchase of the 7”, revisits the mid-fi production values of Polvo’s Today’s Active Lifestyles and Exploded Drawing. The noisy guitars are a welcome return to that era, especially when they recall the lurching of “When Will You Die for the Last Time in My Dreams.” While I’ve grown to appreciate the polish of In Prism and “Heavy Detour,” the grime of this alternate take of “Anchoress” fits the tone of the song better.
To return to my opening point, no, I should not use “reunited” in reference to Polvo’s post-2008 output. “Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress” isn’t a worthy pick-up because it’ll scratch your nostalgic itch; it’s a worthy pick-up because these two songs are excellent additions to a daunting discography. That’s past tense vs. present tense, and it’s time for more of Polvo’s reunited peers to join them (and Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, etc.) in the latter category.
I picked up a used copy of Helium’s 7” for “Pat’s Trick” at Reckless Records and got a booby prize in the sleeve: the sales slip from the previous owner’s original purchase of the single. Along with the Helium find, the haul included two additional singles, each priced at $3.49: one from the space-rock band Flying Saucer Attack (recently recalled by Scott Tennent of Pretty Goes with Pretty) and one from Grenadine (a Simple Machines band featuring Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and Unrest’s Mark Robinson playing 1920s-style ballads). Sadly, the slip didn’t include any further details, like the store name, the specific singles purchased, the date of sale, or the physical singles for Flying Saucer Attack and Grenadine, so my walk down someone else’s memory lane is cut short.
If you need a refresher on Helium, here goes: Washington, DC expatriate Mary Timony trekked up to Boston for college, leaving behind Dischord’s Autoclave, and replaced Mary Lou Lord in the fledging Helium. I can’t imagine Helium without Timony’s vocals, which alternate between airy wisps and husky monotones, let alone the medieval melodies of her guitar work and the simultaneously inviting/dismissing lyrics. They released two full-lengths, 1995’s fuzzed-out The Dirt of Luck and 1997’s prog-rock-inclined The Magic City, which rank among my favorite Matador Records releases, along with a few essential EPs (Pirate Prude, No Guitars, and the CD5 Superball+, which offers the superb “What Institution Are You From?” [live video link!]). Polvo’s Ash Bowie (Timony’s then-boyfriend) joined the group on bass prior to The Dirt of Luck, and there’s some bleed-through from that group’s off-kilter melodic approach. Helium split up following The Magic City, leaving Timony to an excellent solo career and now Wild Flag, but as you can tell from my purchase of a seventeen-year-old single (cue depression), the original documents hold up.
A-side “Pat’s Trick” is the lead track from The Dirt of Luck, and an excellent intro to the record’s strengths. It made an appearance on Beavis & Butthead, on which the guys commented on double-meanings and the small size of Timony’s nostrils, following up a showing of Helium’s “XXX” video which provided an ample dosage of zingers (“Hey Butthead, I think the TV’s on slow,” “I think this chick just, like, woke up or something,” “She probably doesn’t really start rocking until later,” “Check it out her guitar’s broken”).
The flip side offers the aptly titled “Ghost Car,” a haunting piano ballad muses how “What I’ve got can make you stop this ride to hell so I can get off” and closes with a muted warning to “Stop this car before it goes too far.” It’s an intriguing diversion, but fits better as a b-side than a missing piece of The Dirt of Luck.
From what I can tell, Helium’s b-sides aren’t available digitally, so I can pass along this compilation of b-sides and non-album tracks with more excitement than guilt. Highlights include early single “Lucy” (which appeared on the bonus disc of What’s Up Matador), an alternate take of “Superball” with Joan Wasser from the Dambuilders (who also joined Timony in Mind Science of the Mind, a short-lived side band fronted by Nathan Larson of Shudder to Think), and the aforementioned “What Institution Are You From.” Godspeed to the Soulseek user who initially compiled this material.
One of my earliest memories of a home-run band comparison was Parasol Mail Order’s catalog description of Paik’s 1998 debut album Hugo Strange as a cross between Polvo and My Bloody Valentine. Those bands were titans of my late ’90s listening habits—not that I’ve abandoned those predilections—and I watered at the mouth at the promise of a new group combining Polvo’s tunings and My Bloody Valentine’s textures. When I heard Hugo Strange, I immediately understood where the comparison came from, but also grasped that there was more to Paik’s woozy instrumentals than a genetic splicing of those two aesthetics. (This point was hammered home by Paik’s superbly sprawling 2002 LP The Orson Fader and its tidier 2006 counterpart Monster of the Absolute, both highly recommended.) If only all such tantalizing comparisons could bear such fertile fruit.
Perhaps it’s déjà vu, but more than a decade later, Me You Us Them signals the same touchstones. The specters of Polvo and My Bloody Valentine cast spells on their 2010 debut LP Post-Data. You could hear opening track “Any Time,” check the properly formatted citations of Polvo’s queasy riff-bending and My Bloody Valentine’s gossamer shine on the lead guitar, and chalk it up to a perfect hybrid. But that song’s clear vocal melodies, which culminate in an earworm of a falsetto chorus hook, break the equation. Much like Paik, the merger of My Bloody Valentine and Polvo is only a starting point for Me You Us Them.
Post-Data offers plenty of other head-turning points of comparison. “Re-Entry” starts out by pairing jet engine swooshes with “ba-ba-ba” vocal hooks, but its half-shouted chorus recalls Pinback’s more energetic moments. The chorus of “Pretty Nettles” could have slipped onto Self’s Subliminal Plastic Motives. The wistful shoegaze of “Wish You Luck” hits the sweet spot of late ’90s groups like All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors, while the loping arcs of “Drugs” mine similar terrain as contemporary acts like The Depreciation Guild. “Big Time” and “iQuit” step through the haze for urgent indie rock, complete with tricky guitar breaks. The group’s self-titled song layers guitar and keyboards over a nearly spoken-word delivery reminiscent of DC’s great Candy Machine. “As of Now” hits the cool stride of Sonic Youth. In case it’s not obvious, all of these comparisons are flattering, recalling broad swaths of my record collection.
Post-Data closes with its standout track, “Loving like Lawyers” (which they recently performed as a seven-piece, accompanied by fellow New Yorkers Appomattox). Starting out with pounding drums, then adding tremolo-heavy guitar, longing vocals, and a slippery bass line, “Lawyers” offers no obvious points of comparison, just a surplus of confident songwriting. The song head-fakes a fadeout at 2:48 before launching into a soaring, texture-laden outro. “Loving like Lawyers” acts as both a summary of what preceded it and glimpse into Me You Us Them’s possible future. (I underscore possible, since “Research,” their scream-laced contribution to a 2011 split single with Bloody Knives, is a wonderfully unexpected left-turn from the majority of Post-Data). Returning to the Paik parallel, if Post-Data is Me You Us Them’s Hugo Strange, I cannot wait for their Orson Fader, when those initial touchstones have completely vanished, leaving only own signatures behind.
Me You Us Them’s Post-Data hasn’t strayed far from my listening pile, especially in the car, since I first heard it a few months ago. That’s high praise—I will never underrate an indie rock record with intriguing riffs and compelling hooks, since those are increasingly few and far between. Perhaps that’s why Post-Data recalls so many ’90s groups; that was when I spent plenty of time with each album because my financials (and the lack of file-sharing) dictated it. Now it’s all by choice, and I’d simply prefer to hear Post-Data again. Allow me to take a mulligan and slip Post-Data onto my top albums of 2010 list.
Whether the gateway drug function of split seven-inches has been diminished by file-sharing and streaming media is up for debate, but even if it’s no longer the easiest way to encounter a few new bands, the format can still work. Consider this split between Brooklyn’s Me You Us Them and Austin’s Bloody Knives, which has already prompted me to track down their respective 2010 full-lengths.* Both bands have been lumped in with the shoegaze revival, which fits Bloody Knives better than Me You Us Them, but neither band should be discounted as a stock “Fender Jaguar + Boss PN-2 Tremolo Pan Pedal = Shoegaze!” act. That alone should pique your interest, but an interesting bait and switch on the part of Me You Us Them should maintain it.
Bloody Knives pull off a neat trick with “I Was Talking to Your Ghost”—as the drums, guitar fuzz, and especially bass speed along, Preston Maddox’s vocals float calmly overhead, seemingly disinterested by the racing pulse below. It’s not far off from Oliver Ackermann’s approach in A Place to Bury Strangers, but the lack of gothic overtones to Maddox’s vocals is refreshing. Bloody Knives’ 2010 LP Burn It All Down offers a bit more variety, hitting on the drum-machine dream-pop of early Cocteau Twins, the aggression of APTBS, and the 8-bit textures and bright melodies of the sadly departed Depreciation Guild. Burn It All Down is available for free download from Bandcamp right now. Keep an eye out for their upcoming remix album, Burn It All Up, which should be available from Killredrocket Records in the near future.
No shoegaze touchstones are needed for Me You Us Them's "Research." If you’d told me in January that I’d make a positive comparison to ’90s Amphetamine Reptile outfit Calvin Krime in a 2011 review, I’d assume that either Sean Tillman came out with an atypically aggressive Sean Na Na or Har Mar Superstar single, not that an unfamiliar band was mining similar territory. But the combination of abrasive screaming, driving three-piece rock, and a pressure-relieving melodic chorus recalls the Calvin Krime playbook. It’s hard to tell if the melodic lead is treated guitar or fuzzy synth, but either way, it’s been floating through my head the past few days. I don’t mean to sell MYUT short with the Calvin Krime comparison, especially since that band might not have pulled off this song’s bass-driven bridge or the buried vocals of “Will we ever wake up?” building into screams in the outro as deftly, but I appreciate revisiting the sound.
Here’s the real shocker: “Research” is an outlier in Me You Us Them’s catalog. I missed the boat on their 2010 Post-Data full-length, but it offers a striking mix of Polvo’s woozy riffage, Paik’s early guitar textures (especially Hugo Strange), and the Swirlies’ off-kilter melodies with a touch of punk aggression. In other words, it fits into a fine tradition of using shoegaze impulses in more muscular, less ethereal song structures. “As of Now” is a good starting point.
Considering that I’ve checked out both band’s albums and am particularly keen on spending more time with Me You Us Them’s Post-Data, you can easily chalk this split up as a rousing success. You can stream both songs over at Bandcamp and order the 7” from Triple Down Records or Killredrocket Records.
* The ability to quickly follow up on each of these bands is a welcome departure from the old routine of split singles, when I’d hear a great new band only to learn that their only other released tracks are on an out-of-print local compilation, their albums are only available in Denmark, or they’d split up before recording a full-length.
Capsize 7 – Horsefly CD – Pig’s Zen, 2010 (10/15 Reckless Records, Broadway Avenue)
When I think of Chapel Hill indie rock from the ’90s, three big names come to mind: Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and Polvo. I’ve always appreciated how those bands formed a spectrum: Superchunk at the catchiest, most approachable end, Polvo at the weird, off-kilter end, and Archers of Loaf smack in the middle. It’s a fluid spectrum, since “Harnessed in Slums” and “Web in Front” certainly reign among the finest indie rock singles of the decade, Polvo’s “Can I Ride” and “Tilebreaker” are mix-tape ready, and Superchunk’s dynamic range blossomed with Foolish, but it helps orient where other North Carolina bands—why yes, there were other bands—fit into the scene.
This orientation isn’t always beneficial, as history favors the lasting legacies of big names. Groups like Capsize 7, Geezer Lake, the Raymond Break, Pipe, and Erectus Monotone are mostly footnotes nowadays (quite literally in the case of the Raymond Brake, whose Andy Cabic has gained a higher profile in his indie folk band Vetiver). So imagine my surprise when I find a seemingly new Capsize 7 album in Reckless Records’ CD bins—were they huge in Japan? Did I miss a reunion?
I certainly didn’t mind running into a new Capsize 7 album, even without knowing the back story. I’d first heard their Recline and Go EP when Parasol Mail Order recommended it for fans of Polvo and Archers of Loaf (target market = found) and quickly tracked down their 1995 Mephisto LP, which was issued on Caroline Records. I’ll hand it to Parasol, since I’d place Capsize 7 a touch past Archers of Loaf toward Polvo on the aforementioned spectrum. Tricky guitar work, emotional vocals, and hooks aplenty—essentially what I like about 1990s indie rock in a nutshell. “Western Friese,” “Column Shifter,” and “Pong” made appearances on my mix tapes at the time. Singer Joe Taylor has a touch of Bowie his vocals, which made finding Capsize 7’s cover of “Queen Bitch” (mp3 download) from Crash Course for the Ravers: A Tribute to David Bowie a thoroughly logical loose end.
The back story for Horsefly is all too familiar: following Mephisto, Capsize 7 goes into the studio with Drive Like Jehu’s Mark Trombino, records their sophomore album, gets dropped by Caroline, then breaks up. Their A&R rep at least had the courtesy to give them the rights to their album, which sat around for thirteen years until it was mixed in 2009 and pressed this year. The timing coincides with the release of Taylor’s new band’s first album, Blag’ard’s Mach II.
It’s a shame Horsefly went unheard for so long. It tightens up the hooks and instrumentation of Mephisto without losing its spirit. It’s also filled with lyrical reminders of its history—excellent opening track “Generator” (mp3 download) asks “Did you break up? / Did you try and never make it?”; “Start or Lose” goes into its chorus with a held delivery of “At least I tried”; and the title track features a count-up in years ending in 2009, which was either tremendously prescient or added last year. The modern mix helps to remind me of the good aspects of 1996 indie rock without the drag of dated production values (not that the reliable Trombino is a risk for those issues).
You can get all of the Capsize 7 and Blag’ard recordings direct from Joe Taylor through his Pig Zen Space site, which charges an entirely reasonable $3.50 per album for mp3 downloads and gives most of that money to the artist. (The site design is a 1997 HTML nightmare, though.)
Sonic Youth is the perfect candidate for the first round of Discographied. As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy them, but haven’t spent time with a solid chunk of their catalog. At fifteen full-length LPs, that’s no surprise, but given the variance of opinion on their albums past Daydream Nation and Sister, it’s understandable. Fifteen is even a conservative number, excluding the eight EPs of experimental recordings released under the SYR banner, their self-titled debut EP, seven other EPs, soundtracks, singles, bootlegs, solo releases, and the Ciccone Youth side project LP. Needless to say, this endeavor will not be comprehensive. If you want a more comprehensive take on Sonic Youth, consult Mark Prindle.
I’ve chosen to listen to the fifteen LPs and their self-titled debut EP, disregarding any bonus tracks appearing on reissues. Will I miss out on some great songs by ignoring all of those other releases? Sure. Would hearing the noisier, more experimental side of Sonic Youth give me a better sense of their overall aesthetic? Naturally. Would listening to every last song drive me completely insane? Dear God, yes. If you’d like to suggest a few essential peripheral releases, I’m all ears, and will get to them in a bonus round once I’m through with their full-lengths.
This entry will cover their first EP and their first five LPs: Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, EVOL, Sister, and Daydream Nation, which is a nice arc covering their 1980s releases and ending before their signing with Geffen.
Sonic Youth EP – Neutral, 1982
Highlights: “The Burning Spear,” roughly half of “The Good and the Bad.”
Low Points: The other three songs.
Overall: My prior idea of early Sonic Youth being “unbridled noise that slowly formed into more discernable songs” is completely destroyed by their debut EP. Their lone release featuring original drummer Richard Edson*, Sonic Youth is remarkably mellow. This EP has virtually no guitar noise or feedback and instead emphasizes rototom-heavy drumming, giving it a beatnik vibe in spots. Much like Killing Joke’s debut EP, Sonic Youth feels more in line with the prevailing musical tendencies of the post-punk era than with the signature style featured on their debut full-length. “The Burning Spear,” in spite of a notable Gang of Four influence, is the most memorable track, pushing the guitar chimes to the front and even adding a power-drill wail. “I Dreamed I Dream” features the earliest instance of Kim Gordon’s penchant for artistic sloganeering when she mumbles “Fucking youth / Working youth,” but this blueprint that got significantly better upon reuse. “She Is Not Alone” and “I Don’t Want to Push It” are purely for Edson fans, since the former plods along with only a few guitar chimes and some laconic Thurston Moore vocals keeping me awake and the latter actually features a drum solo. “The Good and the Bad” is an eight-minute long instrumental that begs for more guitar noise and less busy drumming. Gordon keeps it afloat at times, but it’s a losing cause. Cut in half, it would’ve been a solid track, but their guitar textures are simply not interesting enough at this stage to justify such aimless drifting.
Have I mentioned that this EP primarily features standard guitar tunings? Yes, that’s a big sign that Sonic Youth is a false start at the beginning of their catalog. Elements of their signature sound are present, but only “The Burning Spear” brings them to the forefront. Richard Edson simply doesn’t mesh with the group’s style and throws off the tone of these songs. Fortunately, they make some significant progress over their next fifteen LPs, so I won’t judge them too harshly for this one.
*Fun fact: I had no idea that Richard Edson was the parking attendant in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Vito in Do the Right Thing.
Confusion Is Sex – Neutral, 1983
Highlights: “(She’s in a) Bad Mood,” “Protect Me You,” “The World Looks Red”
Low Points: “Confusion Is Next,” “Making the Nature Scene”
Overall: From its queasy opening chords, Confusion Is Sex opens the proper Sonic Youth era. Gone is the beatnik vibe of the Richard Edson days; enter a newfound emphasis on confrontation and noise as bastions of their approach. Confrontation too often feels forced within music, but it makes an enormous amount of sense within Sonic Youth’s historical and cultural context circa 1983. It’s profoundly different from the more literal take on confrontation favored by hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat, but no less visceral. This context doesn’t excuse the too-frequent indulges of performance art dramatics, but I’ll take those over the boredom of “She Is Not Alone” in a heartbeat.
The Moore-sung “(She’s in a) Bad Mood” and the Gordon-fronted “Protect Me You” start Confusion Is Sex with an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom. There’s not much structure to be found, but the guitars chime and clang with spooky energy, the bass rumble amplifies the tension, and temporary drummer Jim Sclavunos’s performance is recorded poorly enough to sound menacing. Maintaining this atmosphere proves to be an issue, however. Feedback experiment “Freezer Burn” leads into a live take of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is a head-shaking drop in fidelity, but at least the latter features Bob Bert’s powerful drumming. “Shaking Hell” starts off with the Gang of Four-esque funkiness from the Sonic Youth EP, but quickly takes a turn down the dark alley where Kim Gordon chants “Shake off your flesh” like a bloodthirsty vagrant. “Inhuman” is defiantly lo-fi rocker with an energy that I hardly anticipated during the first two songs. “The World Looks Red” features lyrics from Swans’ Michael Gira, but it’s Moore’s clear vocal performance and the dueling guitar noises—one sounds like a music box being played backwards at half-speed—that set the song apart. Sadly, the last two proper songs shit the proverbial bed.
“Confusion Is Next” is a clanging, tuneless headache that’s not excused by the punk blast in its final minute. “Making the Nature Scene” is a rambling, Kim-Gordon-yells-things track. At least the instrumental “Lee Is Free” ends Confusion on an interesting note, compiling an array of guitar textures that sound like malformed church bells and frog calls. Its impact is lessened, however, by my utmost certainty that Moore and Ranaldo have thousands of hours of practice tapes with similarly wonky tones.
I’ll commend Confusion Is Sex for being a record of intriguing ideas, but without structure and focus, too many of these ideas veer off course. I was foolish to expect the album to maintain the portentous clamor of its first two songs, but the chaotic flow and weaker tracks diminish the genuinely disorienting feeling of songs like “Protect Me You” and “Shaking Hell.”
Bad Moon Rising – Homestead, 1985
Highlights: “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” “I Love Her All the Time,” “Death Valley ’69”
Low Points: “Society Is a Hole,” “Ghost Bitch”
Overall: True to its title, Bad Moon Rising feels like a late-night drive down a west Texas highway, as sleeplessness slowly turns into insanity, everyone turns on each other, and morning never arrives. Without the chaotic bits interrupting the sense of portentous doom that began Confusion Is Sex, this mood can actually ebb and flow on Bad Moon Rising, much like the back-half of Wipers’ Youth of America. A consistent rhythmic drone and brief segues between songs tie the album together as a single piece. It’s a marked improvement over Confusion and a proper, timely statement (much like the Wipers’ album), but the individual songs settle into the whole instead of standing apart.
Bad Moon Rising starts on a high note with the mesmerizing arpeggios of “Intro” leading seamlessly into the relatively bright chords of Gordon’s “Brave Men Run (In My Family).” Gordon’s vocals capture the perfect level of distanced danger and violence, matching the song’s transition from its optimistically bright beginning to the heightened caution of its fade-out. Sticking with the highlights, “I Love Her All the Time” is a buzzing love song occasionally punctuated by bursts of distorted guitars and drums. “I’m Insane” appropriates industrial rhythms for Moore’s focused delivery of lines from the back covers of pulp fiction novels.
Moore and Gordon each provides a misstep. Moore’s “Society Is a Hole” demonstrates the album’s biggest strength—cohesion—also contributes to a notable weakness: at six minutes, it’s simply too long for a one-chord drone dismissal of modern society. “Ghost Bitch” is the album’s requisite dose of Kim Gordon irritation, her melody-free vocals chanting over rudimentary industrial pounding. The beginning of the song provides some interesting ambient feedback, but once the Gordon vocals come in, that’s all I hear.
The majority of the record falls into this rhythmic drone, but album closer “Death Valley ’69” breaks the tension with a much-needed dose of energy. (Can’t help but think, “We made it to the tire fire, guys! We did it!”) No Wave pioneer Lydia Lunch is the rare vocalist who is able to out-pretense Kim Gordon, which is an accomplishment on an album containing the pained drone poetry of “Ghost Bitch,” but her mirrored duet with Moore is less irritating and more intense than I’d expect. No surprise that this song is one of the hallmark tracks of early Sonic Youth.
Considering that “Death Valley ’69” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” comprised a pre-album single, I’m inclined to bring Bad Moon Rising down a notch, but its overall atmosphere is worth hearing as a whole. While those songs are the clear highlights, they also feed into a compelling album arc. Bad Moon Rising would, however, be better off as a mini-LP, trimming some of the fat from “Society Is a Hole” and “Ghost Bitch.”
EVOL – SST, 1986
Highlights: “Tom Violence,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Star Power,” “Expressway to Yr Skull”
Low Points: “Death to Our Friends” isn’t necessary, but it’s not bad either
Overall: I haven’t stressed this point until now, but pre-EVOL Sonic Youth suffers from the “You had to be there” syndrome of certain groundbreaking art. Those early records were particularly exciting because they caught a genre in transition—moving away from prevailing contemporary ideas, pulling in outside influences, expunging tired clichés. 25 years later, the shock value of that movement is largely gone, but those documents remain. I can appreciate those albums for what they are—for the 2010 listening experience of Confusion Is Sex or Bad Moon Rising documented above—but I can’t fully appreciate what it was like hearing those albums in the context of 1980s underground rock. So much of what Sonic Youth brought into underground rock has since been normalized, so things like wonky alternate tunings (Polvo, ahem), prepared guitar treatments, drone-oriented soundscapes (Kranky Records), and postmodern nightmares (Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F# A# Infinity would be an apt companion piece for Bad Moon Rising) now seem strangely commonplace. I can’t blame Sonic Youth for their timeliness and innovation, but I can prefer the more timeless material those early experimental records evolved into, starting with this aptly titled album.
Bad Moon Rising demonstrated Sonic Youth’s newfound ability to shape their avant-garde influences into an actual album arc, but excluding “Death Valley ’69” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” its songs were still dominated by their experimental lineage and their confrontational stance toward rock and roll norms (melody, for one). EVOL opts to subvert from within by embracing shorter songs and memorable melodies, trading confrontation for listenability. Those elements still take a backseat to the creative approaches to guitar and song structures, but their presence helps EVOL tremendously.
I’ll hand it to Kim Gordon; barring the first 1:15 of “Secret Girl”—an unnecessary soundscape delaying the entrance of the disturbingly pretty piano part—her three songs on EVOL are all top notch. “Secret Girl” shows that ornate beauty can still be unnerving. “Starpower” limits the vocals, letting the disorienting guitar and bass parts dominate the song. And “Shadow of a Doubt”? I’ll be stunned if I come across a better Kim Gordon song on one of the remaining albums. The layered harmonics—pulled lower than usual thanks to those alternate tunings—would alone make for a wonderful song, but it’s Gordon’s alternately hushed and feverish delivery that sets the song apart, reciting the combination of sex and murder inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train. The intimacy in “Shadow of a Doubt” is truly impressive; even in a song about two films, there’s no distance between the Gordon and the subject matter.
Thurston Moore also has three excellent songs—the excellent opener “Tom Violence,” the woozily propulsive “Green Light,” and the notoriously great closer “Expressway to Yr Skull.” Moore opens the last with “We’re gonna kill the California girls,” but unlike the threats of violence on Bad Moon Rising, this sentiment is marked by its nonchalance. It’s supposedly about Madonna and Sean Penn, but the lyrics are so vague that any cultural criticism is effectively irrelevent. “Expressway to Yr Skull” is all about the rise and fall of its guitar-driven rollercoaster. After a few ups and downs, the final two minutes of ambient echoes closing out the album feel earned. (I know I vowed not to listen to the bonus tracks, but a few times the cover of “Bubblegum” has come up after “Expressway” and it’s unendurably terrible.)
Another strength of EVOL is how even its weaker songs aren’t particularly bad, they just don’t measure up to “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Expressway to Yr Skull.” Lee Ranaldo’s “In the Kingdom #19” is a poem about a car crash with Mike Watt on bass (shortly after the D. Boon car crash, even). Its engine-revving guitars are neat, but after a few spins of EVOL I’m tempted to skip it. “Death to Our Friends” is a decidedly competent instrumental. Moore’s “Marilyn Moore” is essentially one of the droning cultural critiques from Bad Moon Rising performed with the cleaner aesthetic of EVOL, but there are a few moments when the buzzing guitar noises gives way to an affecting calm.
I can appreciate Bad Moon Rising, but I don’t anticipate ever loving it. EVOL, however, floored me on the first listen and kept me coming back for more. I’m almost reluctant to move onto Sister, since I’d rather stick with “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Starpower,” and “Expressway to Yr Skull” for a few more days. For the first time in their catalog, there’s no need to reconcile the difference in eras. EVOL has lost nothing in the last 24 years.
Sister – SST, 1987
Highlights: “Schizophrenia,” “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” “Stereo Sanctity,” “Cotton Crown”
Low Points: “Hot Wire My Heart,” the “Kill Time” part of “Pipeline/Kill Time”
Overall: The fundamental question about Sonic Youth albums changes with Sister. It’s no longer “Is this stage of their development interesting out of its historical context?” EVOL answered that one definitively. Now it’s “Is the songwriting on this album consistently good?” Sure, there may be a sharper change in the approach to the songwriting on a given album, presumably Dirty and NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but most of their avant-garde impulses will be pushed to non-album material from here on out, whether it’s the Ciccone Youth album, the Fall covers EP, or the SYR series of EPs. This divide maintains Sonic Youth’s experimental side (and their street cred), but it also means that their official LPs are now known quantities with a certain level of expected quality.
Sister certainly exceeds such expectations, both fitting into the prevailing sound of late 1980s indie rock and dictating what groups would rip off in the years to come. Virtually every one of these songs offers at least one of the following, if not all of them: a tricky verse guitar part; an insistent vocal hook; a mesmerizing noise bridge; a dramatically effective change of pace. If pure songwriting is the determinant of success, Sonic Youth nailed it. I spent far longer with this album than I anticipated, since every time I’d hear something new, some new song would stand out from the fray.
The majority of those highlights are Thurston Moore tracks, which vaults him to the top of the SY totem pole for this go-around. Although “Expressway to Yr Skull” is the most notorious song from EVOL, Kim Gordon contributed “Shadow of a Doubt”—its best song—and two other solid tracks, giving her a higher success rate than Moore. (Lee Ranaldo, buddy, you need more than one song to get in this fight.) This time it’s Moore with the tremendous success rate. Opener “Schizophrenia” is primarily a Moore song, a mid-tempo demonstration of their newfound melodic instincts and their invitingly warm guitar tone, but Gordon does appear midway through with a dreamy embodiment of the song’s titular theme. “(I Got a) Catholic Block” is a nervy post-punk song that covers a remarkable amount of ground in less than three and a half minutes. “Stereo Sanctity” features some excellent surf-inspired drumming from Steve Shelley, which forms a pounding underbelly for Ranaldo and Moore’s strafing. “Tuff Gnarl” wrote a good amount of 1990s indie rock with its opening verse (including at least one Rectangle song), but Moore doesn’t wear out its welcome, making the descent into noise even more noticeable. “Cotton Crown” is a Moore/Gordon duet—I’m surprised that there haven’t been more of these—that gradually twists its carefree lilt into the best noise bridge on the album. “White Cross” is one final blast of tricky indie rock to close out the album. Six original Moore songs (two with Gordon assistance), six winners.
Moore hardly has the exclusive rights to Sister, since Gordon and Ranaldo each contribute a great song of their own. Gordon’s “Beauty Lies in the Eye” is shockingly lovely, an even more drugged-up version of Mazzy Star’s desert shoegaze. Ranaldo’s “Pipeline/Kill Time” starts with two minutes of a downright boogie that easily makes up for the growing distance between his vocal performance and the increasingly melodic deliveries of Moore and Gordon.
There are a few slight issues. The cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” gives some 1980s scene recognition to an early California punk band, but the song’s punk minimalism ultimately sounds too removed from the rest of the album. Making the song a b-side or hidden track would have been preferred. As much as I dig the “Pipeline” half of Ranaldo’s lone track, the “Kill Time” half does just that, wandering for about for two and a half minutes. Yes, it makes sense thematically in the song, but it takes away some of the momentum from “Stereo Sanctity” and “Tuff Gnarl.” Finally, Gordon’s “Pacific Coast Highway” is a love/hate affair; I love how they brought back the industrial nightmare of Bad Moon Rising with more focus, I love the switch to the floating instrumental mid-section, but I cannot stand how Kim Gordon says, “I won’t hurt you / As much as you hurt me.” Words cannot express how much her delivery of “me” irks me. If that’s the point, kudos, but that one syllable makes me itch to skip the song.
Sister lacks a definitive song like “Death Valley ’69,” “Expressway to Yr Skull,” or “Teen Age Riot,” but its consistency is remarkable, even with those minor missteps. It’s not the edgy early stuff, the first instance of excellent songwriting, or their double-album epic, but Sister’s comparatively less exciting dominant trait—being a great single LP—shouldn’t be undervalued. I suspect Sister will stick around my playlist for a while.
Daydream Nation – Enigma, 1988
Highlights: “Teen Age Riot,” “’Cross the Breeze,” “Total Trash,” “Hey Joni,” first two parts of “The Trilogy”
Low Points: “Eliminator Jr.,” “Providence,” lyrics in “The Sprawl”
Overall: Sonic Youth had certainly been important, exciting, and influential prior to Daydream Nation, but this album made them icons of alternative/independent rock. (That sentence was auto-completed by Microsoft Word once I typed Daydream Nation.) To put it in more personal terms, there was no debate as to the first Sonic Youth album to pick up when I was in high school. I doubt that I’d heard any of the album prior to buying it, even “Teen Age Riot,” because of my lack of indie-oriented friends, but I’d done enough reading to know which one to buy.
Being confronted with a double LP as my first taste of the group, however, seems foolhardy in retrospect. Loved “Teen Age Riot,” sure, but I could probably count my total spins of the entire album on one hand prior to this week. Getting stuck on a particularly great first track is a specific problem of mine (Rex’s Rex, Pinebender’s Things Are About to Get Weird), and the difference between the inviting riffs of “Teen Age Riot” and the dissonant propulsion of “Silver Rocket” was enough to make it happen. The latter features the noise bridge that so many EVOL and Sister songs utilize, but since I hadn’t heard those records, I couldn’t recognize that trick. Now that I can pick up on Sonic Youth’s structural tendencies, the album doesn’t seem so daunting. (I’m also thirteen years older, so I’d imagine that plays into it as well, but let’s return to the actual album.)
There’s no point to saying that Daydream Nation is great. It is. Any devil’s advocate arguments seem like pointless trolling. The most scathing criticisms (only 8/10 from Prindle!) I’ve found mention that a few of the songs don’t measure up to the highlights. I’d argue that it’s true, but ultimately irrelevant. “Eliminator Jr.,” the Kim Gordon punk conclusion to “The Trilogy,” is most frequently cited, but I don’t think its lady cock-rock is inherently bad, just a strange tonal switch following “Hyperstation.” The noise collage “Providence” is unnecessary, but reality check: is Sonic Youth really going to record a double album without including at least one formless noise collage? Come on. Fewer people critique Kim Gordon’s feminist, proto-riot grrrl lyrics in “The Sprawl,” but some, including myself, find them a touch tedious. Yet the song itself is great and most of it is instrumental. Finally, most “critical” reviews have issue with one of the three Lee Ranaldo songs, usually “Eric’s Trip” or “Rain King,” but I felt like all three of his songs are marked improvements over his past output, especially “Hey Joni.” On an album with fourteen tracks (counting “The Trilogy” as separate songs), two or three low points is expected. The overall quality remains superb.
The high points of Daydream Nation are almost unfairly assured as forward-thinking rock songs. The riffs feel more traditional, based more often on crystalline arpeggios and roaring chord progressions than the wonky noise leads that dominate those earlier records, but none of them feel dumbed down in the slightest. Even with its dreamy Kim Gordon open, “Teen Age Riot” never veers off course into a noise bridge. Prior to Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth reveled in those noise parts of the songs, even presenting them as the true attractions to the songs. This approach gradually evolved over the previous two records, but “Teen Age Riot” is when they recognize how great their hooks can be. Gordon’s “The Sprawl” and “’Cross the Breeze” each stretch out past seven minutes, but it’s hard to find a moment in “The Sprawl” when the melody isn’t floating along in its closing mist or one in “’Cross the Breeze” when its considerably momentum is completely gone. The beginning of “Total Trash” is so casually endearing, predicting countless Stephen Malkmus deliveries. “Hey Joni” is the relentless Ranaldo rocker that “In the Kingdom” and “Pipeline” could only hit at, choosing to accelerate rather than drift into aimless noise. The first two parts of “The Trilogy” cash in on the epic dynamics of “Expressway to Yr Skull” with even greater peaks and valleys. A few more songs merit mention as highlights, but that’s what happens with a classic double LP.
I keep thinking of Television’s Marquee Moon, one of the towering achievements of 1970s NYC punk, and it’s a telling, flattering comparison. Sonic Youth emerged from the fringes of this scene, initially embracing its more avant-garde tendencies, but the compelling lyrics and confidently creative guitar work on Daydream Nation refers back to that album’s combination of storytelling and songwriting. Sonic Youth took a strange, interesting journey to get to Daydream Nation, whereas Marquee Moon was Television’s debut LP, but each album manages to bring in the past, define the present, and look to the future. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly Sonic Youth’s greatest achievement. How many bands can pull off a double album with minimal fluff? Almost none. What about double albums that crystallize a genre and capture an era at the same time? Even fewer. Its monumental stature, however, doesn’t guarantee that it’s the best album to start with or that it will ultimately be your favorite Sonic Youth album. I may very well prefer Sister, since it’s simply easier to pick up and spin in the car, but that doesn’t take anything away from Daydream Nation.
Clcik here to read about Sonic Youth's 1990s albums
My long-overdue best of 2009 list is now up. You can sample these twenty fine records with links (YouTube and mp3) for songs from each album, or download the two-CD Recidivistic Best of 2009 mix, which, surprisingly enough, features songs from each of these albums.
The top five became clear to me by early November. Six through twelve were in consideration most of the year. Beyond that, it was a crapshoot. I considered including albums from Boston Spaceships, Constants, Do Make Say Think, J Dilla, Mission of Burma, A Place to Bury Strangers, Ring, Cicada (opted for Heroes of the Kingdom—more on that decision soon), We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Wye Oak, all of whom could have easily made it. There is a handful of great recommendations I’ve barely processed (including Floodwatchmusic’s number one, Blut Aus Nord), which may very well top a number of these albums in the near future. If I’ve learned anything about list-making, it’s that the finished product is always temporary. These are the twenty albums I’d recommend first if someone asked me today.
I’m still planning on doing a top albums of the 2000s list, but given the frequency with which my views change as I track down more great albums, it may be a while.
117. Polvo – In Prism 2LP – Merge, 2009 – $24
In Prism was by far my most anticipated album of 2009. It was a big enough surprise that Polvo played reunion shows last year, but when they unveiled a few new songs along with greatly revamped classics, I was stunned. I became hopeful that they’d record a new album, which soon enough became reality. By the time that “Beggar’s Bowl” appeared as an advance mp3, I was practically frothing at the mouth. Response to “Beggar’s Bowl” was a bit mixed—the general response was that it was a good song, but it didn’t feel Polvo enough—but I make no qualms about my affection. It’s a stomping, metallic update of their old sound. When I saw Polvo at Brooklyn Bowl in July, I didn't think I could wait much longer for In Prism, yet it would be a few more weeks for the full album to leak and until September 8 for the vinyl. It’s now January, which should be enough time for me to process In Prism.
I won’t make any bones about it: I love In Prism. Is it the best Polvo album? Probably not. Does it sound exactly like vintage Polvo? Not really. Is it far, far better than Shapes? Yes! The last question was the softball I’d lobbed to the album when I first heard it—be better than Shapes, come on, you can do it—but that’s selling In Prism wildly short. They’re simply not going to be the same band they were twelve years ago, which is entirely understandable given their musical experiences since then, the group’s new drummer, and their own ideas about not merely rehashing the past. The biggest difference between In Prism and vintage Polvo is the approach to their guitars. The queasy mid-fi chimes and swoops of Today’s Active Lifestyles and Exploded Drawing had been polished up a bit for Shapes, but the change is far more noticeable now. Guitarist Dave Brylawski even admits to playing in standard tunings on In Prism, which is shocking considering the bonkers alternate tunings they used for those earlier albums. The two big results of this change are 1. a diminished emphasis on those wonky guitar licks as foundations for their songs 2. a higher level of control for song structures and layering. It’s a give and take, but if these developments are the manifestation of the dreaded “maturity,” Polvo has aged marvelously.
The second biggest difference between In Prism and older Polvo albums is the split between Ash Bowie songs and Dave Brylawski songs. By This Eclipse and Shapes, Brylawski’s classic rock influences were readily apparent in his songs, but since Polvo’s original demise, Brylawski’s been keeping busy, most recently as the frontman for Black Taj. That band’s 2008 release Beyonder felt a lot like Brylawski’s later Polvo songs, with an occasional swagger added from being the primary frontman. I expected his songs on In Prism to be close to Black Taj songs, perhaps even repurposed riffs, but that’s not entirely the case. They don’t feel disconnected from the rest of the album, but they do maintain their own separate flavor. “D.C. Trails” ambles along like some of the mellower songs on Fugazi’s The Argument before concluding with some impressive guitar pyrotechnics. “City Birds” has a touch of a classic Polvo riff in its wandering, warbling lead guitar, which flirts with the vocal melody. “Dream Residue/Work” is the most sonically interesting of Brylawski’s songs, starting with an overdub-heavy introduction before hitting a push and pull between driving vocal melodies and moody guitar passages. With more energy, these songs would be highlights of the album, but as is, Brylawski’s laid-back vocal performance relegates these songs to solid album tracks.
Whereas Brylawski’s kept busy with Idyll Swords and Black Taj, Ash Bowie’s songwriting output has been minimal since Polvo’s initial split. His 2000 solo debut, Libraness’s Yesterday and Tomorrow’s Shells, was a cleaning-out-his-closet collection of sketches and demos, which was nice for obsessives but not particularly memorable. He’s spent time as a bassist for the BQs and a touring guitarist for the Fan Modine, but neither of those low-profile gigs even matches his previous stint as Helium’s bassist. This period of compositional silence (he’s supposedly close to finishing two Libraness albums, but I’ll believe that when I hear them) could’ve resulted in a rusty comeback, but Bowie’s five songs on In Prism are all exceptional, like he’d cashed in twelve years of inspiration to prove that he’s still got it. “Right the Relation” is the closest to classic Polvo, starting with a bent-note riff that leads into new drummer Brian Quast’s confident, muscular beat. It’s loaded with stops and starts, left-turn riff changes, nimble bass lines from Steve Popson, and a charged Bowie vocal performance. “I killed my creation / To right the relation” could easily apply to the reunion itself, and after that opening salvo, consider the relation righted.
Three more points about the previously discussed “Beggar’s Bowl”: First, even if Popson and Quast bit the thump-thump-thump bassline and drum breaks from Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” it's a smart theft. Second, the lyrics and vocals update earlier Polvo dream narratives like “Fast Canoe” and “When Will You Die for the Last Time in My Dreams,” which was always my favorite style of Ash Bowie lyrics. Third, the dramatic build-up is still enthralling, and the seamless transition back to the main riff is impressive. Whether “Beggar’s Bowl” sounds like classic Polvo is irrelevant; if this song is the start of the next chapter, I can’t wait to read more.
“The Pedlar” is Bowie’s pop song on In Prism. It somehow turns a jittery guitar noodle into a workable lead, then rewards your patience with an atypically flowing chorus melody and layered synth flourishes in its outro. “The Pedlar” splits the difference between new Polvo and the catchier parts of Magic City-era Helium (dragons not included). I’m surprised it wasn’t released as a single, but it’s not 1994 anymore, so indie rock seven-inches aren’t compulsory.
As great as those three songs are, Bowie’s finest achievements on In Prism are its two longest songs, “Lucia” and “A Link in the Chain.” The former begins with a mournful, reserved introduction, with Bowie’s quivering voice reflecting on “The color of leaves on October trees” before a dramatic crash of guitar. For most bands, this shift from quiet to loud would be enough to carry the song, but at the 2:25 mark, “Lucia” changes course completely, pulling in dueling guitar leads, an enthusiastic Bowie vocal (“New moon / Shadows the sky / Open your eyes and tell them goodbye”) before hinting at the reticent chorus of “Lucia / I thought you were gone.” Midway through, the song splits the difference, building back up with hand percussion, cello, and Bowie’s ghostly titular evocation. Those knotty guitars keep pace, leading the song back to its original charging tempo. It’s a constant tug of war between these elements, but it never feels out of control. Unlike the aforementioned “When Will You Die” from Exploded Drawing, which rambled on far too long for my liking, “Lucia” earns every second of its 8:15 runtime. It’s not quite as long as the album closer, “A Link in the Chain,” which weighs in at 8:47, a ponderous exploration of Polvo’s new motifs. There’s Brylawski’s mid-tempo fetish, which Bowie anoits with restrained emotion on “Now with a gentle word / You send a chariot to send me home,” the woozy sonic burst of “Dream Residue/Work,” the emotional range of “Lucia,” and the layered guitars of “Beggar’s Bowl.” It’s essentially 1970s progressive rock in range and structure, but unlike the classic rock appropriations on Shapes, it always feels natural. The tides of guitar that conclude the song are as majestic as anything Polvo’s done before.
Comparing Polvo’s reformation to those of Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. is surprisingly favorable for Polvo. Mission of Burma’s comeback has been remarkably rewarding (see below), equaling the energy and passion of their earlier work if not quite the same level of inspiration, although The Obliterati by no means lacks inspiration. Dinosaur Jr.’s comeback has been universally acclaimed and I certainly enjoyed Beyond, but I felt diminishing returns on Farm for the very reason people have praised it. Dinosaur Jr. is too comfortable playing what they think a classic Dinosaur Jr. song should sound like, even if the band dynamics nowadays are 180 degrees different from that classic era. Isn’t there an inherent laziness in choosing not to progress and instead giving listeners exactly what they expect? Polvo’s reunion shows demonstrated a welcome unwillingness to cede to those expectations, choosing to tear older songs apart and build them up anew, and In Prism features a similar view of the past. There are ties to their past sound—“Right the Relation,” especially—but most of the record takes new directions, new approaches, some of which you may very well not like as much as Exploded Drawing. If the crowning achievement of the new Dinosaur Jr. albums is that they sound like their vintage SST albums, doesn’t that imply that you still prefer You’re Living All Over Me and Bug? I do. Even with Mission of Burma, my fondness for The Obliterati never threatens to surpass my appreciation of Signals, Calls, and Marches or Vs. Even though I answered it in negative, my earlier question about whether In Prism is the best Polvo record still matters, since I had to debate it. In Prism might not equal Today’s Active Lifestyles or Cor Crane Secret, but five months in, I prefer it to Exploded Drawing, which is still quite an achievement. Who knows how these albums will rank in another twelve years.
118. Mission of Burma – “Innermost” b/w “… And Here It Comes” 7” – Matador, 2009 – $6
I had to double-check Matador’s web site to be sure that this double A-side single wasn’t an advanced shot from Burma’s upcoming The Speed The Sound The Light LP, since Burma did that series of one-sided twelve-inch records in advance of The Obliterati without including any new material. Sure enough, “Innermost” and “…And Here It Comes” will not appear on the album.
I do take issue with calling it a double A-side, however, since “…And Here It Comes” has all of the direction, melody, and momentum on this single. The chorus is as good as anything on The Obliterati, which seriously whets my appetite for the new album. “Innermost” feels downright wonky in comparison, pushed forward by a big bass sound and an off-tempo. Maybe it’ll grow on me, but for now I’ll keep the single on “…And Here It Comes.”
119. J Dilla – Donuts 2LP – Stones Throw, 2006 – $15
I went to Newbury Comics hoping that another big recent release—Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II—would be pressed on vinyl and available for purchase, but that didn’t happen (and to my knowledge, still hasn’t). It did get me flipping through the hip-hop vinyl, in which I found J Dilla’s Donuts. I’d recently skimmed it and felt interested enough to merit the purchase, so I went with an increasingly rare impulse buy of a new LP.
If I paid more attention to hip-hop, I would’ve known about J Dilla (Jay Dee) years ago, since he was quite busy in the mid 1990s producing tracks for artists like the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, I only heard about his solo albums after the fact. J Dilla died of the blood disease TTP in 2006 at the age of 32, just three days after the release of Donuts. It’s the sort of life story that could cloud my judgment of an artist’s work, but Donuts would be surprisingly affecting even without its tragic context.
Donuts’ closest aesthetic match in my collection is DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, another instrumental hip-hop album, but J Dilla takes an entirely different approach to sonics and song structures. Vocals and samples are chopped up and looped, creating a swirl of syllables that eliminates any need for an MC. Soul samples dominate the underbelly, but almost every song has some ingenious touch that turns my ear. The most arresting aspect of Donuts is its architecture. At 45 minutes and 31 songs, song ideas never overstay their welcome and frequently leave me wanting more. Yet it’s how these pieces fit together that truly impresses. It reminds me of Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes in how most tracks make far more sense within the context of the whole, how tracks reflect upon each other, how a switch in tone or tempo makes one song sound that much better. One comment on Stylus’s review of Donuts mentioned how the reviewer failed to mention a single song title, but that makes complete sense to me. Directing a listener to sample one song in the middle of the album defeats the purpose.
31 short songs without structural doubling or tripling is a veritable pupu platter of production treatments, so it’s no surprise that most tracks from Donuts have been utilized by MCs on their albums and mix tapes. Yet right now, I’m not itching to hear the rapped-over versions. No slight to any MC choosing one of these beats—good taste, at least—but being able to hear these songs once and figure out more of the overall puzzle is a more enticing proposition.
Against the wishes of my team of advisers, I’ve decided to start a record-reviewing Twitter account. Given that this site has become ridiculously verbose—my Record Store Day post for The Haul is nearly 3000 words and I still need to finish discussing a few records before posting it—limiting myself to 140 characters (including artist name, album name, and release year) should be a nice change of pace. Its updates soon be crammed into the sidebar, but feel free to follow me and talk trash about the twenty words I use per album.
As penance for joining Twitter at this stage of its life cycle, here is the first shots from Polvo’s upcoming In Prism album, set for release in September on Merge. “Beggar’s Banquet” juxtaposes a dreamy guitar loop with some unusually upfront, fierce riffage, suggesting that Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski have been taking the cream and the clear since 1997’s Shapes. Those riffs might be a holdover from Brylawski’s Black Taj albums, but the song’s polish is strangely unfamiliar to the creaky, mid-fi confines of Today’s Active Lifestyles. Bowie must’ve been saving up this ballsy vocal performance for years. Its ultimate build-up doesn't sound like Polvo, but I'd listen to whatever band it does sound like. (Edit: the other site switched over to "Beggar's Banquet.") The jury’s still out on this song, but I’m still looking forward reviewing In Prism on Twitter.
Along with Pavement, Seam, Rodan, and Archers of Loaf, Polvo pushed me further and deeper into indie rock obsession during high school. Naturally, all of them broke up before I moved off to college, thereby preventing me from the hit-or-miss experience of a vintage Polvo show, but their current reunion / reformation finally rectified that situation. There’s something about their music that seems particularly tantalizing in a reunion context, since they were too fidgety and strange as a band to trot out the greatest hits and leave it at that (see: Pixies). Not that they don’t have greatest hits—“Feather of Forgiveness,” “Vibracobra,” “Can I Ride,” “Every Holy Shroud,” “Gemini Cusp,” “Tilebreaker” and a number of others immediately come to mind—but I had no idea what they’d actually play and even less of an idea of how they’d play it.
New Radiant Storm King (photos here) seemed like an appropriate opening act, since I mainly know of them courtesy of a split single they did with Polvo back in 1994. This show was the first time I’d actually heard them, however. Their genial banter was a good fit for their 1990s-styled indie rock, although in a strange twist the songs from their next record sounded better than their older material. I’ll check out that record whenever it comes out and catch them again the next time they play Boston.
Birds of Avalon blended drifting psych-rock and cocksure 1970s hard rock with promising results as the middle act. Some of the psychedelic aspects felt too aimless, like they simply ran out of meaty riffs to fill the songs, but I can see them putting together a cohesive show and/or album in the future.
In an interview about Polvo’s upcoming shows, bassist Steve Popson calls it a “reformation” rather than a reunion. I hadn’t seen this comment before the show at the Middle East, but damn if it doesn’t make a ton of sense in retrospect. I’ve listened to Polvo’s albums—well, maybe not Shapes*—enough to sleepwalk through every note with ease, but Polvo (photos here) threw obstacles in my path at every turn. Switching drummers to Brian Quast brought more heft to the songs, but also forced the rest of the band to relearn and, in many cases, rewrite the old songs. Some songs, like the encores of “Tragic Carpet Ride” and “Fast Canoe,” stayed relatively true to the originals, but “Fractured (Like Chandeliers)” and “Every Holy Shroud” took pleasure in casting aside their old structures. (Note: the linked clips are to various reunion performances; I only took pictures of the Boston show.)
Each guitarist sang one new song, with Dave Brylawski’s contribution sounding like a restrained version of one of his Shapes tracks and Ash Bowie’s recalling more of the Exploded Drawing era, and I think there might’ve been a new instrumental track. Given the proliferation of new material within the old songs, like an alien bridge section of “Every Holy Shroud,” it’s hard to tell where truly new material started and where improvisation of old material ended. The set list also included “D.D.S.R.,” “Bombs That Fall from Her Eyes,” “Thermal Treasure,” “Title Track,” and “Feather of Forgiveness,” but nothing from Cor Crane Secret.
It’s unclear whether they’ll record a new album this year, but this reformation should certainly be filed alongside Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. in the worthwhile category. I’m rarely as afraid of my peers that a reunion will soil a band’s legacy, since I’m not all that concerned about critical legacies affecting my personal enjoyment of a group, but I was surprised that seeing Polvo reformed made me appreciate them more.
* Side note: After I took a picture of a distant set list so I could zoom in and read the titles more easily before they started playing, the guy behind me asked if I could read the list. After I started relaying song titles, he decided he didn’t want to know, so I said, “Oh, they’re actually just playing all of Shapes.” He said, “I wouldn’t mind that.” This is why I don’t make friends at rock concerts.