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The Haul 2010: Seam's Kernel EP

Seam – Kernel CD – City Slang, 1992 – $1 (10/15, Broadway Avenue Reckless Records)

Seam's Kernel EP

Following my purchase of their debut “Days of Thunder” single, I continue to fill in the gaps in my Seam collection by rescuing a used copy of their 1992 Kernel EP from a dollar bin at Reckless Records. How the import pressing from City Slang ended up in the city of Touch & Go is beyond me, but I was relieved not to have the “EPs are too expensive” excuse for once. Back in my Signal Drench days, I wrote a column about that very issue, citing how a few mid-length EPs from bands like Hurl and Helium cost almost as much as their full-lengths. A member of Hurl contacted me with the financial constraints of recording thirty minutes worth of music and pressing it, which immediately made me regret writing the column. That understanding doesn’t make forking over $9 for fifteen minutes of music any easier, however, and neither did the odds-and-sods appearance of Kernel.

Kernel’s four songs comprise one original, two alternate versions, and a cover, which doesn’t look like a filling buffet, but look closer. “Kernel,” the lone original, could have easily fit on the excellent The Problem with Me with its welcome crunch of distortion, laconic vocals, and hooky chorus. “Sweet Pea” (Editor's note: Holy shit they made a video for it) is an earlier version of a song from TPWM, a situation reminiscent of a later two version Seam song, “The Prizefighters.” I prefer the original take from the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation compilation, since The Pace Is Glacial version suffers from a touch of forced aggression in Soo-Young Park’s vocals. The Kernel take on “Sweet Pea” has fuzzier edges and a less confident vocal than on TPWM, but those are both things I appreciate about early Seam. It doesn’t invalidate the later version, but it might have if I’d heard it here first. The other alternate take on Kernel is “Shame,” which appeared first on Headsparks as an up-tempo track with guest vocals from Sarah Shannon of Velocity Girl. This take slows things down to a meditative crawl and brings back Soo-Young’s signature whispers. Those vocals continue on the album’s cover of Breaking Circus’s “Driving the Dynamite Truck” (a Minneapolis post-punk band featuring current Shellac drummer Todd Trainer) until they erupt in passion midway through the six-minute-long song.

Seam’s Kernel EP isn’t as monumental as the reigning champions of 1990s indie rock EPs (Pavement’s Watery, Domestic, Archers of Loaf’s Vs. the Greatest of All Time, Polvo’s Celebrate the New Dark Age), but its stealthy success shouldn’t go overlooked. I certainly regret missing out on the wonderful alternate take of “Shame” for all of these years. Kernel appears to be out of print in physical formats, but you can purchase the mp3s direct from the sadly idling Touch & Go.

The Haul 2010: Colin Newman's Commerical Suicide and Seam's "Days of Thunder"

These two LPs came from New Paltz, NY’s Rhino Records, a store I hadn’t visited in several years. It brought back fond memories of loading up on cheap CDs in high school.

6. Colin Newman – Commercial Suicide LP – Enigma, 1986 – $12 (1/17 Rhino Records)

Colin Newman's Commercial Suicide

The title of Colin Newman’s fourth solo album implies a detour from the nervy, antagonist post-punk of A – Z and Not To to less hospitable terrain, but the stylistic shift to electronically equipped chamber pop isn’t nearly as severe as what Wire fans came to expect with Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s art-damaged Dome albums. Yet I still agree with Colin Newman’s warning; Commercial Suicide marks a drastic left turn in compositional orientation. There’s plenty of weird, alienating textures on A – Z and Not To, but they’re essentially guitar rock records. Commercial Suicide is decidedly not.

More specifically, Commercial Suicide isn’t a Wire record. Both A – Z and Not To featured Wire drummer Robert Gotobed and a few songs originally intended for their follow-up to 154. (Compare the Wire version of “Safe” from Turns and Strokes to Newman’s own version from Not To; the difference between the thrashing snarl of the former and the wearied restraint of the latter is huge.) Those two albums picked up where Newman’s songs on 154 left off. Once Wire reformed in 1985, Colin Newman’s solo output branched off, making Commercial Suicide the first Newman solo album to truly feel distanced from Wire.

(A brief covering-my-bases note: this discussion excludes Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish, Newman’s Brian Eno-inspired album of short instrumentals. It’s a pleasant diversion for those people who just can’t get enough of Music for Films, but every time I put it on, I wish Newman would sing over the tracks like he with “Fish One” on the CN1 EP, rechristening it “No Doubt.”)

This distance is explored on the opener, “Their Terrain,” (MP3) a fanfare for Wire’s concurrent return that forgoes guitars and percussion for both real and synthesized symphonic swells. It’s the most memorable track here by a fair margin, demonstrating how well Newman’s melodic instincts (“Outdoor Miner,” “The 15th,” “& Jury”) translate to chamber pop. Other keepers include “But I…,” highlighted by an atypically open chorus of “I have waited for so long / I,” and “I Can Hear Your… (Heartbeat),” which features background vocals from Newman’s now wife Malka Spiegel (who still collaborates with her husband in Githead). These highlights stand out clearly, since too many songs flounder in a propulsion-less slog from the album’s distaste for percussion.

Yet Commercial Suicide’s critical flaw is its reliance on 1980s synthesizers masquerading as orchestral flourishes. I tend to skirt the issue of “dated” recordings, since almost every record is tied to its historical context by its production values and/or compositional signposts, but it’s impossible to hear Commercial Suicide without thinking two things: 1. This record came out in the mid 1980s 2. This record would sound so much better if the ’80s synths were actual instruments. Strings are certainly present here, but not exclusively. Imagine Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock with obvious synth tones—would it hold the same critical reverence? I doubt it. Commercial Suicide needs to sound grand, not canned.

Newman’s next solo album, It Seems, bridges the gap between these eras to some extent, relying on sequencers for less chamber-oriented pop. (It’s just as dated, if not more so.) It’s not, however, as brave or compelling of a switch as Commercial Suicide was. For all of this album’s flaws, it’s impossible for me to hear the marvelous “Their Terrain” or “But I…” and not appreciate the chances Newman takes in switching from post-punk to chamber-pop or marvel at the success he has with such a different form. Sure, I still wonder what it would sound like with the Laughing Stock treatment, but Commercial Suicide provides detailed notes for that mental re-recording.

7. Seam – “Days of Thunder” + 2 7” – Homestead, 1991 – $4 (1/17 Rhino Records)

Seam's Days of Thunder single

It still blows my mind that Mac McCaughlin of Superchunk / Portastatic / Merge Records fame was Seam’s drummer when they started out. The band went through numerous line-up changes during its eight-year run, but starting out in North Carolina with Mac on drums is the biggest head-scratcher. “Days of Thunder” is their debut single, featuring the same line-up from 1992’s Headsparks (bassist Lexi Mitchell joining Seam mainstay Sooyoung Park) and sharing one song, “Grain.” The a-side does the lugubrious Seam template quite well—mumbled vocals, slowed-down tempos, buzzing guitars, bass hum, and those gloriously reticent melodies. “Grain” picks up the tempo, adding more jangle to the guitars, although it’s not as upbeat as the album version.

The cover of the Big Boys’ “Which Way to Go” fills out side B nicely with female vocals carrying a lilting rendition of the tune. It’s borderline twee, dropping Mac’s drums out for an occasional shake of a tambourine, but Seam was particularly good at stretching the logical boundaries of its melodic indie rock sound. I certainly expect this song was a head-scratcher for any Bitch Magnet fans hoping that Seam picked up where Ben Hur left off.

I’ve uploaded the “Days of Thunder” single along with seven other out-of-print songs from Seam singles here. The understated cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” is quite nice.

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

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

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

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

Bitch Magnet's Ben Hur

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

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

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

Kerosene 454's Situation at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory

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

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

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

Camper Van Beethoven's II & III

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