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The Haul 2010: He Said's Take Care

He Said – Take Care LP – Mute, 1989 – $3 (Broadway Avenue Reckless Records, 7/15)

He Said's Take Care

Wire’s third LP, 154, is an engrossing document of artistic divergence. Vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman wrote the music for the album’s approachable post-punk songs, with like “The 15th,” “On Returning,” and “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” (co-written with Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert) ranking among the group’s best starting points. Bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis helmed “The Other Window” and “A Touching Display,” pushing the record toward performance art dramatics. The split between camps on 154 itself is admittedly less transparent than its aftermath. First, Wire made a decided step toward explicit performance art with the performance at the Electric Ballroom captured on Document and Eyewitness. Next, the two camps—Newman and Gotobed, Lewis and Gilbert—underscored their respective tendencies with their post-Wire output. Newman explored nervy post-punk on A-Z and Not To (along with the Eno-esque instrumentals of Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish) with Gotobed remaining as his drummer, while Lewis and Gilbert explored considerably more experimental terrain with Dome, P’O, and Duet Emmo. These extracurricular activities continued after Wire reformed in 1985, albeit with less frequency and stylistic division.

I appreciate both sides of this coin on 154, but past that, my preference for Newman’s post-punk over Lewis and Gilbert’s outré art is apparent in my record collection. He Said’s Take Care, a collaboration between Lewis and John Fryer (noted producer and member of This Mortal Coil), is the first release I’ve picked up from the latter faction, having avoided those Dome LPs in fear of overdosing on gothic voiceovers and clanking machine noise. The release date on Take Care is critical for a few reasons: first, it came in the midst of a string of Wire releases, joining the semi-live record It's Beginning to and Back Again in 1989; second, it echoes my comment about less stylistic divison from the mothership; third, it sounds very, very much like an album from 1989. Far from the experimental fringes of Dome, Take Care is more akin to the electronic-addled late-’80s Wire—for both better and worse.

Opening track “Watch.Take.Care” typifies the album’s specific faults and flairs: it’s too long and the drum programming is noticeably dated, but Lewis’s repetitious vocal patterns, bass line, and textural touches are compelling. The verses on “A.B.C. Dicks Love” come shockingly close to the semi-rapping of Pet Shop Boys’ “Westend Girls,” a vocal style that doesn’t suit Lewis very well, although the melodic chorus redeems the song. The moody “Could You?” overreaches at times with its ambiguous murder mystery storyline, but Lewis imbues the “Did you do it for love? / Did you do it for free?” refrain with open emotion rather than his usual detachment. “Tongue Ties” is the album’s best dose of ’80s pop hooks, including digital hand claps. The less said about the electro-R&B “Not a Soul,” the better. The instrumental “Halfway House” is commendable, if dated synth-based industrial, parried by the spooky, orchestral “Get Out of That Rain.” The aggressive vocals of “Hole in the Sky” are equally irritable, but at least that one’s tucked away at the end of the album.

Provided that you listen to He Said’s Take Care in its proper context—as a thoroughly ’80s companion to Wire’s contemporaneous work—it’s actually a pleasant surprise. If you cut “Not a Soul” and “Hole in the Sky” and trim a minute or two of repetition from a few of the other tracks, Take Care becomes a fine EP or mini-LP, demonstrating Graham Lewis’s overlooked strengths as a pop songwriter with occasional hints at his experimental edge. Who knows, it might even encourage me to explore the more abrasive work Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert released in the first half of that decade.

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.

33 1/3: Wilson Neate's Pink Flag

Wilson Neate's Pink Flag

I first noticed that Continuum had chosen an author for a 33 1/3 book on a Wire album when I was checking out who else on Last.FM was obsessively listening to early Colin Newman solo records. Lo and behold, one of my fellow devotees had been slotted to write the book about Pink Flag. This moment occurred shortly after I’d narrowed down the records that I could conceivably write 33 1/3 books about—barring all of my preferred options that would never be accepted (Juno, Shiner, Hum, Castor, Jawbox, Silkworm, Shudder to Think)—to Wire and Slint albums, with the possible addition of Girls Against Boys’ Venus Luxure #1 Baby, so reading his announcement was bittersweet, just like it’ll be when someone is chosen to write about Spiderland.

I can understand why Continuum chose Pink Flag, since it probably has the largest cross-over appeal of the three early Wire records, even though I would have opted for either the post-punk perfection of Chairs Missing or the unrelenting progress of 154. Whereas those two albums are firmly in the post-punk camp, Pink Flag occupies a liminal space between punk and post-punk, a concept that Wilson Neate investigates during the first half of the book. While no one explicitly stated this viewpoint in the book, I’m sure there are punk-rockers out there who love Pink Flag but have no time for either Chairs Missing or the willfully difficult 154. Those punk rockers and their post-punk peers will be well served by Neate’s book.

Neate’s Pink Flag is divided in two rough halves: the first five chapters are devoted to biographical, historical, and contextual coverage and the massive sixth chapter provides commentary on each song. Considering that Kevin Eden’s Everybody Loves a History speeds through much of this period in order to give equal space to the group’s post-Wire output and post-reformation material, Neate’s thorough exploration of Wire’s early years is quite welcome. Eden’s book glosses over George Gill’s tenure in the group, but Neate emphasizes how Gill’s clichéd rock ‘n’ roll approach gave the other four members something to model their minimalist approach against. The Clash provided a similar model, which led to some cold interactions between the groups. Wire? Cold? Never!

Doing the song-by-song approach works for some 33 1/3 books (Double Nickels on the Dime in particular) and it could have easily been the bulk of this book, given that Pink Flag has 21 tracks and the chapter spans 60 pages. Neate notes how several correspondents had difficulty extracting favorites from this string of songs, viewing it more as one complete document, which I can understand to some extent. Certain songs—“Reuters,” “Ex-Lion Tamer,” “Pink Flag,” “Mannequin,” “12XU”—stick out to me, but there’s a string of others, especially on side B, that flow together. Reading about them as separate songs shortly after I’d listened to the record was quite interesting, but I still had a hard time remembering a few of the songs’ melodies.

The post-script is relatively limited, jumping from just after Pink Flag to Elastica’s appropriation of “Three Girl Rhumba,” to that song’s use in a British H&M ad, and finally to Bruce Gilbert’s self-removal in 2004. It’s a transition focused on the financial side of the band, in which Colin Newman redid the writing credits for Pink Flag to give himself more royalties (he’d written the majority of the guitar parts, but Bruce Gilbert played most of them on the recording). Neate makes the point that the rock side won out over the art side, which is quite clear to anyone who’s read Object 47, Wire’s first post-Gilbert LP. Bits of Wire’s post-Pink Flag history are sprinkled throughout the book, but don’t expect any emphasis on “Outdoor Miner” or “The 15th.”

My biggest critiques are editorial in nature. At 150 pages, Pink Flag is on the long side of 33 1/3 books, surpassed in my stack by only the tomes on Bee Thousand and Exile on Main Street. The length would be fine if not for thematic repetition in the first half of the book, in which various points (Wire’s minimalism in particular) are reinforced several times over by multiple quotations. Graham Coxon provides an undue amount of these quotations, which baffles me in the presence of Albini, MacKaye, Prescott, Rollins, Watt, etc. Ultimately, Pink Flag the book would have benefitted from some of Pink Flag the album’s signature economy.

Despite these minor caveats, Neate does an excellent job bringing a Wire album to the 33 1/3 canon, finding a similar level of success to Bob Gendron’s Gentlemen. I doubt that most fans have tracked down Everybody Loves a History, but Pink Flag is a more succinct, more focused option for those who do not care to read about the genesis of The Ideal Copy. I’m holding out hope that Wire is granted one or two more entries in the 33 1/3 series, since Chairs Missing and 154 deserve equal treatment, but barring a major shift in Continuum’s approach, that’s not going to happen, so go pick up Pink Flag.

2008 Year-End Wrap Part One: The List

My 2008 year-end list is up, with links for at least one song per album linked to either an mp3 or a YouTube video. I promise that I’ll only utilize horizontal scrolling for special occasions.

Quite a few albums could have easily found themselves in the 20 to 15 range. Matthew Robert Cooper’s Miniatures is pleasant, but too many of the songs sound like sketches instead of finished compositions. Sharks and Sailors’ Builds Brand New has a solid front half, but loses steam near the end. GZA’s Pro Tools has some excellent cuts, but the lack of energy is disappointing. The Constants/Caspian split single might have made it if I’d counted seven-inches, but I’m sure Constants’ forthcoming 2009 release will rectify their absence this year. Fuck Buttons’ Street Horrrsing was aesthetically intriguing, especially “Colours Move” and “Sweet Love for Planet Earth,” but a few of the songs did nothing for me. Lights Out Asia’s Eyes Like Brontide is an improvement over their last album, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of Garmonia. Wire’s Object 47 needed more tracks like “One of Us” and “All Fours.” I simply didn’t spend enough time with Secret Chiefs 3’s Xaphan: The Book of Angels, Vol. 9 to give it proper consideration, but there is always a few albums that slip past me until the following year.

Next up: my two-disc year-end mix and my list of the best non-2008 records that I first heard during this calendar year.

The Haul: Amoeba Records 12/12/2008 Prequel

Wire's Object 47

I'm starting a new feature called The Haul in 2009 in which I document all of the music I purchase during the year. It should help me keep Record Collection Reconciliation alive with my already existing records, which was the original intent, and help me keep track of just how much music I purchase in a calendar year. (Must block access of this meme from my wife.) While the following records won’t count for the 2009 tally, I’d feel amiss if I visited Amoeba Records in Los Angeles (which I did two weeks ago) and didn’t recap my finds. Even though I’d tempered my expectations for visiting Amoeba, it was hard not to be excited to enter such a huge record store and then feel a bit disappointed when I encountered the picked-over stock. Nearly every artist I looked for had their own plastic divider but no LPs to earn it. Granted, I didn’t have the necessary time—a half day, perhaps—to fully go through all of their seven-inches and their dollar-bins, but my educated guess is that their employees and patrons don’t let too many great finds slip through the cracks for long. I still need to go to the more heralded Amoeba locations in San Francisco with a weekend to kill, but that’ll have to wait for another cross-country flight.

Wire - Object 47 2LP: While this album was a slight let-down after the excellent Read & Burn 3 EP, my Wire fandom compelled me to buy this 2LP package that contains both releases. If the entire album was as good as its bookends—the overwhelmingly catchy “One of Us” and the thrashing “All Fours”—I’d sing a different story, perhaps one about how revitalized they are after the departure of Bruce Gilbert, but the blunt truth is that Object 47 is somewhat more listenable than Send, but far less challenging.

Matthew Robert Cooper - Miniatures LP: My copy of the Eluvium box set should arrive shortly into the new year, but it does not contain a copy of Cooper’s “solo” debut from this year, which I’d put off mail-ordering direct from Gaarden Records. I assume that it was grossly overpriced at $20, but I opted to buy it anyway since I’d never seen it in a store. Amoeba was exceptionally good at having recent releases in stock, even if they were a buck or two more expensive than I expected.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead LP: After trying out the Festival Thyme EP, I found myself revisiting some of Trail of Dead’s earlier songs. I realized just how good the lengthy, drifting Jason Reese songs like “Novena Without Faith” and “When We Begin to Steal” from their self-titled debut were. Even though it was released on the now-defunct Trance Syndicate imprint, it doesn’t look like this LP is particularly hard to come by, but I was still excited to see it. I’d rather pick up old Trail of Dead albums than new ones.

Mekons – I Love Mekons LP: It’s frustrating when the main Mekons LP that I see (Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll) is one that I purchased on eBay earlier in this year, but I was fortunate to also find I Love Mekons at Amoeba for $7.99. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m willing to trust most albums that they put out between 1985 and 1995, unless it’s Mekons Teen Pop or Hitler Loves Mekons. (I lie; I’d buy those if they existed.)

M83 – Run Into Flowers LP: Despite their presence on year-end album lists, M83 works best as a singles band and “Run Into Flowers” was their first great single. The three remixes on this LP are all excellent, taking different approaches (glitch-pop, cresting shoegaze, vaguely hip-hop) to reworking the song. If only they’d put the three or four good songs from Saturdays = Youth on a 12”.

What I Left Behind: I mainly passed on new LPs that I thought I could find at Newbury Comics or order from Parasol, like Gregor Samsa’s pricey 2LP for Rest and the reissue of Low’s Songs for a Dead Pilot EP, but I think there were a few other notable declines. Rapeman’s album and EP were both there, although neither is particularly hard to track down, and an EP for the Mekons’ “Empire of the Senseless” was there, although a bit too expensive for my tastes. I was surprised to see a copy of the Comsat Angels’ Sleep No More on LP for $4.99, but I already bought mine from Mystery Train earlier this year.

Next up are visits to two Reckless Records locations in Chicago later this week. I am foaming at the mouth in anticipation.

Muxtape #1: “Now come days of begging, days of theft"

I have created a New Artillery Muxtape, which I’ll try to update every month or so with different songs. I’ve written about half of these bands a considerable amount in the last few months, so hopefully your interest is piqued. Many of the other selections are precursors for future posts. Muxtape #1 is subtitled “Now come days of begging, days of theft,” which is the first line of the second chapter of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The novel has little to do with 1980s post-punk, American indie rock, or melodic electronic music and most of the songs lack insights into the American West in the middle of the nineteenth century.

1. Four Tet – “Hands”: I picked up Four Tet’s Rounds from the dollar bin of Reckless Records in Chicago a few years back. Although I was both surprised and delighted to find a recent, critically approved release in said bin, I put off actually listening to the album until “Hands” and “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” came up on shuffle in my iTunes. Since then, Rounds has been in heavy rotation on my laptop and in my car stereo. The gentle pulse of “Hands” is still my favorite part of Rounds, which outdoes most of the organically inclined entries into the IDM wing of electronic music.

2. Colin Newman – “& Jury”: I’ve already written about my fondness for Colin Newman’s solo work, especially 1980’s A–Z and 1982’s Not To, which come closest to Wire’s art-punk. If you enjoy Wire’s first three albums or late ’70s and early ’80s post-punk and haven’t heard these records, track them down as soon as possible.

3. Frank Black – “Places Named After Numbers”: I remember seeing videos for Frank Black’s “Los Angeles” and “Men in Black” on 120 Minutes and taping the songs onto an audio cassette, but I never followed up on either record. Hell, I hadn’t gotten into the Pixies at that point. By the time I felt compelled to check out Frank Black’s solo albums, he already had far too many of them and I tossed off the whole enterprise. Whoops. Frank Black and Teenager of the Year have been making the rounds in iTunes lately and while both records could use some editing, gems like “Places Named After Numbers” make considerable sense in a post-Trompe le Monde context.

4. Accelera Deck – “Guided”: I first learned of Accelera Deck’s Narcotic Beats through Epitonic.com a year or so after its official release in 1998. At the time there were few, if any acts combining electronic beats and shoegaze guitar this effectively, so it’s a bit ironic that Chris Jeely abandoned this sound before its true emergence with M83, Ulrich Schnauss, Guitar, and similar new-gaze artists. Narcotic Beats may sound a bit dated nowadays since it’s not as polished as the aforementioned acts, but it’s hard to top the lilting melodies of “Guided,” “Greentone,” or “Drifting Out.” A career recap of Jeely’s output is long overdue, but if you ever come across Narcotic Beats or Exhalera Deck’s “Exhale” / “Inhale” LP, buy them and thank me later.

5. Smog – “Say Valley Maker”: I was officially chided by a friend of mine for not including A River Ain’t Too Much to Love on my best of 2005 list. My only excuse was that I was still digesting Smog’s Doctor Came at Dawn, Red Apple Falls, and Knock Knock and wanted to pace myself on Bill Callahan for a while. River now threatens Knock Knock for my favorite Smog LP and “Say Valley Maker” competes with “River Guard,” “I Break Horses (Peel Session),” and “All Your Women Things” for my favorite Smog song. I could quote every line from the song, but “And there is no love / In the unerring,” weighted with its extra syllable and fully breaking the rhyme of the verse, surpasses my other potential examples.

6. Wye Oak – “I Don’t Feel Young”: Wye Oak’s If Children comes together so strongly that it was hard to extract a single song to sample. While the guitar rush of “Warning” and the melancholic ache of “Family Glue” make solid cases for inclusion, the rising melody of “I Don’t Feel Young” grabbed me on the car ride back from New York this weekend.

7. C-Clamp – “Land Meets Sea”: Whenever I miss driving down I-57 to or from Chicago and passing a golden haze of nearly unbroken cornfields—yes, I actually enjoyed this drive—I think of C-Clamp’s guitar distortion and how perfectly it fits that mental image. “Land Meets Sea” adds an underbelly of acoustic guitar and an array of electric arpeggios to that distortion before pairing its closing feedback with descending harmonic chimes. It’s a multi-tracking extravaganza, but it’s handled with a remarkable amount of subtlety. I wish C-Clamp had recorded a third album, but Meander + Return and Longer Waves combine for a strong, if underappreciated legacy.

8. Silkworm – “Cannibal Cannibal”: Firewater will get its own post in the near future, but it took all of my strength not to put on one of Andy Cohen’s cathartic, solo-laden epics (“Slow Hands,” “Tarnished Angel,” “Don’t Make Plans This Friday”) in the interest of this mix’s pacing. Tim Midgett’s “Cannibal Cannibal” is much closer to the up-tempo classic rock of Lifestyle, but there’s certainly enough of Firewater’s relentless gravity in the pre-chorus couplet “It takes a lot of nerve / To get up in the morning.”

9. Wipers – “When It’s Over”: “When It’s Over” is a fine example of Greg Sage’s guitar pyrotechnics on Youth of America, an album I’ve covered several times.

10. Stars of the Lid – “Articulate Silences Part 2”: I wish they played Boston every month.

11. Lungfish – “Creation Story”: I have a larger post in the works on the rise in vintage vinyl prices, but Lungfish’s early records are a particularly curious example of inflation on eBay. The band has staunch devotees whose desire for early Lungfish records like Rainbows from Atoms and Pass & Stow has pushed me out of the market for the time being. Sixty bucks? I’ll wait and see if I see them in a used bin, thanks. Dischord did remaster and reissue the former record last year, tempting me to break my “If it’s on vinyl, buy it on vinyl policy,” but I’ve held out in the hopes that my search will bear LP fruit. “Creation Story” limits Lungfish’s trademark meditative repetition to the music, since Daniel Higgs opts for a gloriously rambling alternate take on creation/evolution: “…as a fish realized it held a monkey inside of itself / And expelled it on the beach in a larval, salamander form.” It almost acts as a template for the bizarre world Lungfish inhabits on their later records, particularly Indivisible, The Unanimous Hour, and Necrophones.

12. Deerhunter – “Spring Hall Convert”: Microcastle, Deerhunter’s follow-up to last year’s Cryptograms, magically appeared on the internet far in advance of its release date, but I’m still enjoying its predecessor. I finally grabbed the vinyl pressing of Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey at Newbury Comics (20% off coupons are the devil on my shoulder) and splitting the album into three sides makes absolute sense.

Record Collection Reconciliation 5-10

6. Minor Threat - Out of Step - Dischord, 1983

Minor Threat's Out of Step

Why I Bought It: I needed to know exactly what I’ve been doing wrong. Wait, I needed to know what other people have been doing wrong. No, I needed to learn my lesson, that’s it.

Har har, those Minor Threat guys will sure have a laugh over that paragraph. As I’ve admitted about a thousand times before, I never went through a punk phase in my teens, so I’ve been catching up on most of the seminal acts in the last few years. After all, married guys in their mid twenties comprise hardcore’s key demographic. To further the delay, Fugazi was one of the last key DC bands that I got into, in large part because Jawbox, Shudder to Think, and Girls Against Boys (technically a New York City band, but…) had videos on 120 Minutes and that was how I found out about bands when I was fifteen. If I’d found out about Fugazi first (i.e. if any of my friends had remotely similar taste to mine and could actually introduce me to bands outside of Metallica and the Dead Milkmen), I likely would have used my completist vigor to track down Rites of Spring and Minor Threat instead of New Wet Kojak and Edsel.

Verdict: I’ve heard a few Minor Threat songs before, but mostly I’m familiar with them from Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. I didn’t put a whole lot of effort into checking them out the first time I read the book, since the didactic lyrical approach wasn’t too tempting. Having just re-read that chapter, however, I found myself far more intrigued by the musical side of the band. I’ve seen enough hardcore bands—mostly at the Prairie House in Bloomington, Illinois—to know a good one, and Minor Threat tempers their furious forward momentum with enough catch-your-breath breakdowns, solid riffs, and spoken/sung sections to counter the blur of shouting over breakneck tempos. While Out of Step only lasts for nine songs, I didn’t find myself losing focus on the music. The true highlights of the LP, however, come when Ian MacKaye brings some much-needed humor into the equation, like ending “Sob Story” with “Boo fucking hoo” or the majority of the scathing “Cashing In” (“Then we’ll make a million when we go on tour”). The title track, however, tries too hard to distance the rest of the band from Ian’s straightedge philosophy: “Listen, this is no set of rules / I’m not tellin’ you what to do.” How ironic it is that I’m less deterred by capitalized lines and finger-pointing at a fill-in-the-blank “you” than by a meager attempt to cushion the blow of such staunch edicts. Thankfully, Azerrard’s book helped me anticipate the lyrical content—both the finger-pointing and finger-retracting—so I was still able to enjoy the music on its own accord.

7. Neil Young - Trans - Geffen, 1982

Neil Young's Trans

Why I Bought It: Its reputation as Neil Young’s nadir made the dollar price tag a mere pittance. Neil Young and vocoder? Sign me up!

Verdict: I expected an LP full of Kraftwerk rip-offs, so hearing the tepid, but opening track “Little Thing Called Love” threw me for a loop. Turns out that a third of Trans is comprised of songs I’d consider “stock Neil Young”—“Little Thing Called Love,” Hold on to Your Love,” and “Like an Inca.” They’re inoffensive enough, but I’d rather listen to Zuma or On the Beach. As for the rest of the LP, my perception that fans and critics alike loathe it was a bit off, since many of the Amazon reviews are remarkably positive, Mark Prindle gave it an eight out of ten, and Rolling Stone gave it four stars, citing the struggle between the electronic and traditional songs. Furthermore, the vocoder tracks were inspired by Young’s attempts to talk with his son, who has cerebral palsy. Oh hell. I buy a dollar record expecting to enjoy its pitiful attempt to appropriate a burgeoning musical trend and look what happens: it’s about Neil Young’s suffering child. I’ll remove my empathy from the situation, since it would be far too easy to confuse good intentions with a good product.

The electronic songs on Trans simply aren’t effective. Even when there’s a heavily vocoded line that carries some weight beyond its novelty (“I need you / To let me know that there’s a heartbeat”), the impossibility of understanding its message without the lyric sheet removes its emotional impact. Whereas Kraftwerk emphasizes matching the lyrical content to the cold, repetitive beats (“Trans… Europe… Express…”), Young’s attempt to recreate the sound but remove the connection between form and function falls decidedly flat. Why appropriate sound designed for trance-like European robo-discos if your intent is to connect emotionally with your audience? Having traditional songs to counter the forays into synthesizers and vocoders comes off as a poor attempt to pacify the audience’s demand for more of the same, not as a key to understanding those electronic songs. I would be far more interested in this LP exemplifying this divide within the songs. I can understand Young’s rationale behind every decision on this album, but it simply doesn’t work as a whole. The actual product is conflicted enough to have supporters, but I’m not one of them.

8. Wire - Snakedrill EP - Enigma, 1986

Wire's Snakedrill EP

Why I Bought It:The first Wire release that I picked up was The Drill EP as a used CD at one of the Rhino Records locations in the Hudson Valley. This was a critical mistake. An entire CD of remixes? For my first purchase from a seminal band? Remixes of a fairly annoying song? I messed up. It took me far, far too long to check out the group’s early, superior output, perhaps in fear that they’d chant “Dugga dugga dugga” over every song. (They don’t.) As such, I’d put off buying the Snakedrill EP, despite its appearance in the Wire LP section of nearly every record store I’ve frequented in the last two years (along with the “live” album It’s Beginning to and Back Again). I finally caved today, picked up a sealed, cut-out bin copy from In Your Ear on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston for three bucks. Four bucks? No thank you. Three bucks? Well, I suppose.

Verdict: I wonder how I would have responded to Snakedrill if I’d been a big fan of their first three LPs and eagerly anticipating their reunion. It’s a tough call. Wire’s transition into electronic-backed new wave would have made sense in 1986, since even the fiery Killing Joke utilized that aesthetic for Brighter than a Thousand Suns. Yet Snakedrill departs from what makes me love early Wire: their unflinching forward progress. Despite attempts to rationalize their new wave output by explaining their “beat combo” approach, Wire’s mid-to-late 1980s output, regardless of its songwriting quality, is too content to mirror what surrounds it. “A Serious of Snakes,” “Advantage in Height,” and even “Drill” are fine songs for the era (“Up to the Sun” is more Graham Lewis drama, snooze), matching the highlights of The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck, but they lack the spirit of Chairs Missing and 154. Would I have accepted this logic in 1986 or would I have been happy to hear three good new Wire songs? If my fondness for 2007’s solid-but-unspectacular Read & Burn 03 EP weighs in on the matter, I’d probably just be happy to hear three good new Wire songs.

9. The Incredible Jimmy Smith - Organ Grinder Swing - Verve, 1965

The Incredible Jimmy Smith's Organ Grinder Swing

Why I Bought It: First paragraph of the liner notes, penned by Holmes Daddy-O Daylie of WAAF in Chicago: “O.K., since you’re reading these notes, you are either an ‘Old Aware One,’ hip to Jimmy Smith, or a neophyte-come-lately trying to get acquainted; if so, congratulations!” I am a neophyte-come-lately who’ll check out almost any jazz record on Verve when costs me a dollar to do so.

Verdict: Organ Grinder Swing doesn’t have any competition in my collection for organ-led jazz, so it’s hard to contrast it to any other albums. I enjoyed the short, energetic title track and his rendition of “Greensleeves,” but by the end of the album I had a savage headache from the tone of the organ. It’s an interesting sidestep in my crash course in jazz, but I doubt that I’ll go searching for more organ-led jazz in the near future unless it comes highly recommended.

10. Rifle Sport - Voice of Reason - Reflex, 1983

Rifle Sport's Voice of Reason

Why I Bought It: I recognized the band name as a former project of current Shellac drummer Todd Trainer, although Jimmy Petroski drums on this particular LP. When I flipped the sleeve over and saw that it was on Reflex Records, Hüsker Dü’s early 1980s label, I figured I was on the right track and snapped it up.

Verdict: Rifle Sport is more indebted to British post-punk than I anticipated, reminding me of a high-speed Gang of Four in spots. Gerard Boissy switches between Andy Gill–informed strafing and straight-ahead riffs, avoiding the razor-wire tone of early of Hüsker Dü. Bassist Pete Flower Conway steals the show, however, letting his busy but effective lines pop up through the mix. While the music is up to the task, the vocals often veer toward tuneless hollering and the lyrics aren’t much to write home about. Voice of Reason is Rifle Sport’s debut album, so this lack of cohesion isn’t surprising, but there are some truly effective moments like “Words of Reason,” “Danger Street,” and “Hollow Men,” which is a reworking/cover of the T. S. Eliot poem. (I eagerly await a doom-metal cover of “The Waste Land.”) According to Trouser Press their later material is better, so I’ll keep a look out for their other LPs.

Record Buying Mistakes

I let my Wire obsession get the better of me last Friday. In addition to buying the double LP of their rarities compilation Turns and Strokes (which has excellent Wire versions of the later Colin Newman tracks “Safe,” “Lorries,” and a few others) and the Kidney Bongos LP, I found something that was filed next to a copy of Colin Newman’s Not To LP called C. Newman and Janet Smith. I’d never heard of it before, but the timeframe seemed right; Colin Newman was in Germany in the mid-1980s recording with his future wife’s band. C. Newman is credited with vocals and arrangement, which seems about right. So instead of thinking critically about the situation—“Sebastian, you have a limited record buying budget right now. Why take a chance on this when you could buy a Roxy Music LP and an XTC LP for the same price? Those are known quantities.”—I plopped it down with my other Wire-related pick-ups and an LP of Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um. On the drive back from RRRecords in Lowell I started getting the sinking suspicion that this C. Newman was not in fact Colin, and when I got home I let a Google search inform me of my mistake.

Initially I wasn’t going to listen to the record out of spite, but when I saw this listing describe it as art-rock/jazz, I figured I’d give it a shot. Additionally, Janet Smith turned out to be Robert Smith’s sister. (Requisite Achewood quote: “It is silly to like The Cure!”) Halfway through the first song, I’ve learned that Chris Newman has an obnoxious baritone and worse lyrics, although those may very well be taking the piss. I wanted to listen to the whole thing, but could only make it through two-and-a-half songs. I may suffer through iPod Chicanery (some of the time), but this record was torture, especially since I paid full price for it. If you are a Cure super-completist, check eBay in the next few weeks.

With regard to my history of record-buying mistakes, I remember being completely ashamed when I purchased a second copy of Idlewild’s Hope Is Important from Reckless in Chicago under the false impression that I didn’t own it. For me, record buying mistakes are an issue of memory, not taste. Finding out that a new record doesn’t meet my expectations has largely disappeared in the age of file-sharing, but even before that era I viewed that experience as a learning process. My biggest concern is my capacity to bring whatever knowledge I have from reading reviews, listening to records, getting recommendations, etc. into the record store. As my record collection has ballooned to almost 1700 items, my ability to remember which Elvis Costello LPs I already own has diminished. Given that I’ve been reading a biography of Wire, I probably should have thought a bit more critically about the suspect origins of this LP. If nothing else, I should be proud of the fact that I can only think of a couple of similar errors in my history of record buying.

Five of Ten

My current writer’s block is a bit confounding, since I don’t think there’s a particular reason why I should open up Microsoft Word, type a few lines, and then shrug my shoulders and close the application, but it certainly happens often enough. Instead of trying to come up with some tremendous conceit to get my blood flowing again, I’ll just expand my usual sidebar feature by writing about ten things I’ve enjoyed recently and hopefully working out some of my nagging concerns in the process. Here are the first five items—as you can see expanding those entries takes up a good amount of time.

1. Colin Newman’s “& Jury”: While my Last.fm account tracks a larger period of time, I typically pay more attention to the play count in iTunes nowadays, having switched over to the software back in September in order to expedite transfers to my iPod. Currently the most played track is “& Jury” from Colin Newman’s 1980 solo debut A–Z with a whopping 40 plays since February 10, 2008. Given my obsession with early Wire, I’m rather astonished that it took me this long to delve into Newman’s solo discography, but such reticence wasn’t entirely undeserved. As the review on Wireviews mentions, A–Z is decidedly hit or miss, with the misses being rather annoying, although I can appreciate the anti-single appeal of “B.” But “& Jury” is easily on par with my favorite late Wire tracks, particularly since its urgent chorus (“We are the judges too”) peels back some of Wire’s trademark detachment. “But for a moment I felt a need to be closer to the reasons / And what I saw I can’t describe, I understand / That we are the judges too” furthers that reading, but what’s exposed isn’t necessarily genuine emotion but the recognition that pure detachment has its faults and its limitations.

I’ve tracked down most of Newman’s pre-1990 catalog and here’s the lowdown: A–Z is scattered, but frequently great; Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish is an occasionally compelling entry into short Eno-esque instrumentals (think Another Green World); Not To has the closest connection to Wire’s 154, in part because some of its songs were originally meant for Wire’s fourth LP, but it’s also more consistent than A–Z, if slightly less sonically compelling; Commercial Suicide issues more synths, less percussion, and a more measured approach to songwriting, but its languid pace makes it difficult for me to make it through the entire album; CN1 is an odds-and-ends EP with a great vocal version of “Fish One” from Provisionally Entitled… called “No Doubt” (with vocal hooked based around the lyric “We all got awfully good at dying”); and It Seems completes Newman’s voyage into sequenced new wave with its great synth-heavy opener “Quite Unrehearsed,” but sounds far more dated than any of Newman’s other efforts.

2. Dexter: At the urging of my friend Jackie, I started watching the Showtime/CBS series Dexter last week. It didn’t take me more than five days to make it through the twenty-four available episodes, which is about par for my other speedy television catch-ups (Lost, Friday Night Lights, The Office). The first season was nearly flawless, as the writers balanced Dexter’s serial killer exploits, personal life (sister, girlfriend), professional duties as a blood splatter analyst for Miami PD forensics, and growing recognition of his past with aplomb. The second season had a less grounded plotline, reminding me of some of the lesser moments of recent Friday Night Lights and 24 seasons, but thankfully the resolution didn’t threaten the show’s future appeal. Michael C. Hall’s performance in the title role carries the series, but Julie Benz and Jennifer Carpenter’s respective portrayals of Dexter’s girlfriend and sister give the show depth. Some of the other characters seem more stock than they should, but there is a fairly large ensemble to introduce so perhaps that’s understandable. My biggest question is how much CBS has to edit out of the series in order to re-air the episodes—there is a great deal of blood and a good amount of nudity in the series—and whether fans of CBS’s flagship CSI franchises will appreciate Dexter’s connection to the forensics field despite its deeper bloodlines. In an ironic twist, I missed some of the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament watching the only reasonably good show on CBS on my computer. The third season starts September 30th, giving me something to look forward to a day after my birthday.

3. Wipers - Youth of America: The biggest problem with my current iteration of iPod Chicanery is that I included too many records that simply haven’t connected with me. The Pop Group, Suicide, Pere Ubu, This Heat, and other forays into post-punk haven’t provided the same level of interest as my previous favorites from the era. From the other end of the spectrum, my attempt at finally appreciating Black Flag hasn’t come to fruition, either. While I’m hesitant to say that I enjoy a limited spectrum of post-punk and punk/hardcore, since my tastes may very well evolve to appreciate more of the post- aspects of the genre, hearing the guitar-centric songs of the Wipers was exhilarating. Part of the excitement came from finally understanding where Zoom’s antsy guitar sound came from—I’d seen the Wipers used as a point of comparison in every Zoom review I’d come across, but never bothered to track down the originators until last week. Yet Youth of America has far more value than its guitar sound, since “No Fair,” “When It’s Over,” and the title track provide an epic counterpart to the other three songs’ comparatively lesser scope and place the Wipers (in my mind, at least) firmly in the post-punk canon. Youth of America has a nearly apocalyptic feel in those longer tracks, in part due to Greg Sage’s fondness for spoken-word narratives. I’ve listened to Is This Real? and Over the Edge as well and enjoy both of them, but Youth of America seems closer to the artistic statement records I relish so much (see: first three Wire albums). It’s great that Jackpot has reissued Youth of America and Is This Real? on LP, so hopefully Over the Edge is also forthcoming.

4. M83 – “Kim & Jessie and “Couleurs”: I’ve hesitated from slagging on pre-release albums in the idea that I’m far more concerned with helping people buy records than dissuading them from doing so, but M83’s upcoming Saturdays = Youth is enough of high-profile release that I don’t think my darts will puncture it too badly. I’ll start with the two tracks mentioned, since they’d make an excellent double a-side single if M83 had the stones for it. “Kim & Jessie” is kin to the last record’s twin singles, “Teen Angst” and “Don’t Save Us from the Flames,” but relates even more to 1980s synth-pop, particularly Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.” It’s no slight to say that “Kim & Jessie” could slip into Donnie Darko’s soundtrack if Richard Kelly’s nostalgia was less of a deciding factor. I’ve already read at least one site mention that “Couleurs” sounds more like a remix of an M83 song than the song itself, but I appreciate the sentiment. If I had to name the remixer, I’d guess Port-Royal, since “Couleurs” sounds enough like Afraid to Dance with less emphasis on crescendos and elongated fade-outs. “Needs more digital cowbell” would be a fine heckle if anyone sees them on their upcoming tour and bonus points if you can do it in French.

Now for the rest of the record. Whereas Dead Cities, etc. worked as an album because the non-singles blended into a greater aesthetic (My Bloody Valentine shoegaze as performed by analog synths), Before the Dawn Heals Us’s increased emphasis on vocals authored several wretched mistakes that crippled the album’s flow. Now Saturdays = Youth attempts to complete the move into a electro-indie band with a new female vocalist and a greater emphasis on rousing anthems like “Teen Angst.” Second single “Graveyard Girl” seems like it’s pandering with a spoken word discussion of what it’s like to be fifteen. “Up!” has the single funniest opening couplet in recent memory, as the female vocalist intones with utmost sincerity that “If I clean my rocket / We’ll go flying today.” The rest of the record tries with varying success to incorporate these female vocals into their synth-pop framework. If I gave the record more time, I’d probably enjoy “We Own the Sky” and “Dark Moves of Love,” but I don’t think I can put that much effort into another ill-fated attempt to revive new wave.

5. Kevin S. Eden - Wire: Everybody Loves a History: I’d argue that I enjoy a history more than most, since I tracked down this rather out-of-print biography of Wire that tracks their careers until 1990’s Manscape. The most surprising aspect of the book is how much of it (55 of 188 pages) covers Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s various exploits during Wire’s hiatus between 154 and Snakedrill. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I prefer Colin Newman’s more song-based output during that era, so I was a bit disappointed that nearly a third of my bathroom reading for the next while would be about Dome and modern art installations. It’s interesting to read about the divisions between the Lewis/Gilbert and Newman/Thorne camps that developed during 154, since that record is so clearly a product of internal tensions. Yet I would have preferred more emphasis on the first three records, since they’re Wire’s classics. Perhaps it’s merely the weight of the timeline that is the source of this frustration, since those records were produced in a three-year span and the book covers the decade that follows them. Everybody Loves a History, like many of the 33 1/3 books that have been released recently, is flawed, but worth checking out. If nothing else, it could be a great source of inspiration for a 33 1/3 entry for Chairs Missing or 154.