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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: Screw Compilation (with Jawbox, Candy Machine, Geek, and Velocity Girl)

Various Artists – Screw 7” – Simple Machines, 1991 – $1 (Cheap Thrills, Montreal, 10/10)

Various Artists - Screw single

I recently discussed subscription series singles as a prime temptation of 1990s independent music, but limited edition runs like Simple Machines’ Machines series also did the trick, bringing promising DC-area groups like Jawbox, Lungfish, Edsel, Nation of Ulysses, Autoclave, Tsunami, Velocity Girl, and Unrest together with a few national acts like my beloved Rodan (representing with the dominating “Darjeeling”) and Superchunk. I can’t say whether they were immediately successful—hello, I was ten at the time—but I certainly ran into high prices for certain volumes well after Simple Machines issued a compilation CD. The label followed it up with Working Holiday in 1993, a monthly series that included both familiar names like Superchunk, Jawbox, and Lungfish and new artists like Crain, the Grifters, Pitchblende, Swirlies, Versus, and Codeine. Equally hard to track down, these singles were compiled in 1994 and initially accompanied by a much sought-after live disc from their January, 1994, Working Holiday live weekend. Jason Noble from Rodan/Rachel’s MC’d the event and many of the aforementioned bands (plus Archers of Loaf!) are represented on the live disc. (I would be tempted to book a trip there if I ever gain access to a time machine.) Rodan’s contribution, “Big Things Little Things,” never got a proper studio release. Given the trouble I had tracking it down myself (trading Hum bootlegs for a cassette dub in the late 1990s) and its resolute out-of-print status, this link seems appropriate:

Download Working Holiday! Live

Back to the single at hand, however. Screw was the fourth volume of the Machines series, featuring four DC/Baltimore-area groups: the post-punk Candy Machine, the hardcore leanings of a nascent Jawbox, and the female-fronted rock of Geek and Velocity Girl. It’s safe to say that all of these bands (or members of the bands in the case of Geek) went onto do better work, but this single is an interesting time capsule in how you could easily have seen these bands share a bill back then.

Lead-off band Candy Machine doesn’t get discussed much nowadays, but I still bring out their 1996 DeSoto Records LP Tune International from time to time. Every time I go back something interesting pops up. The spoken word shuffle of “6 Months of Light” recall contemporaries June of 44’s Engine Takes to Water—as does the song’s reference to Henry Miller—and there are a few signs of aesthetic cross-pollination with Baltimore compatriots Lungfish, but there’s also Kraut-rock in the rhythms, the Fall in the delivery, Gang of Four in the strut, all of which are profoundly good things. As for Candy Machine’s contribution here, “My Old Man”—their first officially released song, if Discogs is accurate—I mostly hear a more melodic companion to Lungfish’s early records. Again, a good thing!

I previously expressed my disinterest in revisiting Jawbox’s earliest recordings, but I’ll make an exception for “Footbinder.” A noisy rocker with distorted vocals from their three-piece days (J. Robbins, Kim Coletta, and Adam Wade), “Footbinder” doesn’t represent what I love so dearly about Novelty, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, and Jawbox, but what it lacks in melody and clarity it makes up for in sheer propulsion. It’s certainly a lot easier to think of J. Robbins coming from DC hardcore with this song than the polished recordings to follow.

Geek was one of Jenny Toomey’s first bands before she joined up with housemate and Simple Machines co-proprietor Kristin Thomson for the considerably more prolific Tsunami. Geek’s catalog is limited to appearances on a few singles/compilations and a very limited cassette on Simple Machines which collected sixteen tracks. (It’s a testament to Toomey’s business acumen that she knew not to press a stack of LPs or CDs for a band that only had one tour, even though it was her band, but I’m a bit surprised this material was never reissued after Tsunami became more popular.) Geek had already appeared on the first Machines single, Wedge, alongside Lungfish, Edsel, and The Hated. Their Screw contribution, “Hemingway Shotgun,” teases a bit with an occasional dose of a tricky harmonic riff (reminiscent of Rodan and Crain), but mostly sticks with straight-ahead rock. Perhaps I missed out by overlooking Tsunami all of these years.

Velocity Girl was also in its infancy for “What You Say.” They’d switched from Bridget Cross to Sarah Shannon on vocals but still a few years off from their 1993 debut LP Copacetic. There are hints of the shoegaze tag they’d earn with that LP—specifically a tremoloed chord during the chorus that recalls My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything—but the general sound is more of melodic indie rock with friendly female vocals. It’s the most polished song here, so it’s hardly a surprise they moved up to Sub Pop.

Unless you stumble across one of these singles in the cheap bin, I highly advocate checking out the The Machines compilation, which still appears to be available through Amazon. Same goes with the Working Holiday compilation, which is still available from Dischord. These discs are time capsules of a particular era of American indie rock, but they’re worth digging up if you’re at all inclined.

The Haul 2010: Bell Gardens' Hangups Need Company

Bell Gardens – Hangups Need Company CD – Failed Better, 2010 (Broadway Avenue Reckless Records, 7/15)

Bell Gardens' Hangups Need Company EP

Reckless Records informed me of the existence of Bell Gardens by including the vinyl pressing of Hangups Need Company in their Stars of the Lid divider. Unbeknownst to me, Brian McBride—one half of Stars of the Lid—collaborated with Kenneth James Gibson from Furry Things and {a}ppendics.shuffle on this disc of '60s-style pop. McBride’s track record from Stars of the Lid and his two solo album, 2005's When the Detail Lost Its Freedom and 2010's The Effective Disconnect, is exemplary, but my hunger for Beach Boys-informed pop is limited, so consider this purchase a calculated risk.

The good news is that Bell Gardens pull off this sound more convincingly than the vast majority of their peers. It’s not a mere application of Beach Boys vocal harmonies to modern sonics and structures—“Through the Rain” could slide into an oldies playlist and no one would think twice. The bad news is that Gibson’s lyrics are often nauseating treacle. (Editor's note, courtesy of a commentator: “End of the World” is actually a cover of Skeeter Davis's 1963 song, so my dismissal of that song's on-the-nose lyrical sentiment apparently goes against a #2 Billboard hit. One that Susan Boyle covered last year. Egg on my face alert. “Breeze [Letters by the Bed]” and its “I see the sunrise in your face / I want to stay here in this place” couplet. still bug me, though.)

My favorite moments on Hangups come when things slow down enough for McBride’s compositional touches to shine through, specifically on “No Story” and “Labour at the Landmark.” They don’t sound like SOTL, mind you, but their pleasant merger of modern dream pop and vintage 60s pop lets the lyrics take a much-needed backseat.

The Haul 2010: Brian McBride's The Effective Disconnect

Brian McBride – The Effective Disconnect: Music Composed for the Documentary “Vanishing of the Bees” LP – Kranky, 2010 – $15

Brian McBride's The Effective Disconnect: Music Composed for the Documentary Vanishing of the Bees

Before I get to the specifics of the second solo album from Brian McBride of Stars of the Lid (skip down to the final two paragraphs for those), I’d like to address the fundamental question that Neil Major from The Line of Best Fits asks in his review of The Effective Disconnect: “How much use are you going to get out of these exquisitely serene drones?” Focusing the utility of any album seems strange to me. I don’t purchase new music with the foremost intent of filling a specific gap in my daily routine or avoid purchasing an album because its likely application has already been filled. My biggest concern is finding good music that appeals to my sensibilities, then determining appropriate contexts for playing it. This determination isn’t always cut and dry—I’ve found Stars of the Lid’s “Tippy’s Demise” to be tremendously affecting in a commute; Marnie Stern’s new self-titled album is my current go-to dishwashing soundtrack—but I enjoy the process of hearing how different styles work in different contexts. It’s no accident that McBride’s minimal soundtrack prompts this discussion, and not an album befitting one of the other listening contexts Major prioritizes (working out, commuting, getting ready to go out). “How much you listen to it will vary more on your lifestyle that the actual quality of the music,” which suggests two things: first, there is a low-key lifestyle fit for ambient classical; second, I am living it.

The ultimate point of Major’s discussion of utility is whether someone needs more than one album of music like Stars of the Lid. (Requisite tangential anecdote: Sometime during my teenage years when my CD collection hit 50 or so, my mom suggested that I probably had enough music. Not quite, Mom.) Ten years ago I could have seen his point and very well might have agreed with him. After all, I enjoyed Windy & Carl’s Antarctica, but bristled at the thought of being a completist. Now I'm more excited about a new Brian McBride album than the majority of other recent releases, and cringe at someone saying, “You’ve got one and that’s enough,” even if that one is Stars of the Lid’s wondrous And Their Refinement of the Decline. Let me rephrase: especially if it’s And Their Refinement of the Decline.

No album changed my listening habits more in the last decade than Refinement. I’d listened to ambient music before Refinement, but never in such heavy doses or varied contexts. To wit: I made a mix CD of ambient music back in 2002 with a single intent: before Keith Fullerton Whitman’s “Modena” comes on, I’ll be asleep. Granted, Refinement is a requirement for any extended air travel for that very reason, but the other contexts have been revelatory. The broadest change: learning how Stars of the Lid works equally well in passive and active listening modes. Whether I’m reading, working, or conversing, I can have Refinement on and switch which activity maintains my foreground attention. Yet my preferred context for Stars of the Lid, et al, is decompression. Typically this means the hour before I go to bed, but it can also mean driving home from hockey. In this particular scenario, the music has my foreground attention, but is essentially pushing this attention into the background. In this case, the music created its own context.

Now here’s why one album isn’t enough: every time I listen to And Their Refinement of the Decline, it becomes harder to listen to it in a purely background context. Not only do I get more and more emotionally involved in the songs, but I notice more elements of their construction. If I made a playlist with “Tippy’s Demise” and “A Meaningful Moment During a Meaning(less) Process” and sat down to read a book, I’d barely turn the page. This phenomenon keeps accelerating with each ambient record to which I give proper time and attention. Eluvium’s Talk Amongst the Trees, The Dead Texan’s The Dead Texan, Last Days’ The Safety of the North, Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet, and Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (to name a few) have each gained clarity and emotion with each passing spin. The clarity extends to the space between each artist and album; much like I could go on and on about the differences between Boys Life and Castor, two Midwestern rock bands from the mid 1990s, the gap between Stars of the Lid and Eluvium keeps growing larger as well. True, it’s a fundamental experience of familiarizing one’s self with any genre, but it’s particularly exciting for such an amorphous aesthetic.

So yes, Neil Major, I do need another album of ambient classical, and Brian McBride’s The Effective Disconnect is that album. It’s an album with a very specific intended utility—the soundtrack for the documentary Vanishing of the Bees—but one which doesn’t require that context to be successful. The combination of guitar drones and classical instrumentation isn’t far off from And Their Refinement of the Decline, but specific songs distance themselves from the tonal range of Stars of the Lid. The bright chimes and buoyant optimism which begin “Beekeepers vs. Warfare Chemicals” belie the song’s title, but soon enough the dour strings take over and darken the blue skies. “Chamber Minuet” highlights its string performances, sounding more like chamber music than the blurred drones of SOTL. Yet the familiar approaches are no less evocative. “Several Tries (in an Unelevated Style)” sells itself short, since the tonal switch from higher-register strings to mournful piano is devastating. The chord swells in “Toil Theme Part 1” are equally powerful.

In Stars of the Lid and on The Effective Disconnect, Brian McBride excels at imbuing the smallest changes in chords, keys, and instrumentation with exponentially large impact. It’s too austere to become melodramatic—a criticism which does occasionally apply to stylistic kin Eluvium—and it’s simple enough not to lose effectiveness or become tiresome. Part of me is surprised that it’s taken so long for McBride and/or Stars of the Lid to helm a soundtrack, but another part recognizes the danger of using music that is so resonant on its own accord in a secondary context. Perhaps my only complaint with The Effective Disconnect is McBride’s admission that it does not contain all of the music that will be heard in the film.

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: Capsize 7's Horsefly

Capsize 7 – Horsefly CD – Pig’s Zen, 2010 (10/15 Reckless Records, Broadway Avenue)

Capsize 7's Horsefly

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.)

The Haul: Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Wye Oak – My Neighbor / My Creator CD – Merge, 2010 – $8 (Show at the Middle East Upstairs, 9/2)

Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Here’s some excellent advice: Go see Wye Oak live. Don’t wait a few years like I did; see them the next chance you get. While I’ve enjoyed the Yo La Tengo / Folksongs for the Afterlife back-porch charm of their two full-lengths, 2007’s If Children (2008 Merge pressing) and 2009’s The Knot, they’re a different act live. Jenn Wasner’s weathered voice is enchanting and empathetic, removing a bit of the restraint she shows on their records. The jagged soloing and reverbed chords of her guitar work makes me long for a Wye Oak live album. Drummer Andy Stack pulls double duty by playing the bass lines on keyboard with one hand. And these aren’t simple, held-note bass lines—they sound natural, like they have an honest-to-goodness third member up there. Certainly check out their records, but recognize that Wye Oak’s unrelenting forward momentum means you’ll hear better versions of earlier songs and new material that improves upon the old when you see them live.

It’s hard, then, to hit pause on their evolution and rewind to this EP, which was first available back in March, but My Neighbor / My Creator deserves attention. Five songs, including a remix of The Knot’s “That I Do,” might seem slight on paper, but the four new songs rank among Wye Oak’s finest moments. “My Neighbor” demonstrates the combination of tricky guitar riffs and inviting vocal hooks that made The Knot memorable, but finds its missing ingredient in the occasional levity of If Children. “Emmylou” proves they can tackle alt-country at higher speeds just as well as the ambling tempo of The Knot’s devastating “Mary Is Mary.” “My Creator” adds wheezing organs and tape effects, but it’s the nimble arpeggios and focused songwriting that keep me coming back. As for the Mickey Free version of “I Hope You Die,” I would not have anticipated the addition of police sirens, synth bass, skittering sound effects, and (most shocking) Free’s own rapping, so you can't call it predictable.

I have to go back to my previous comment about “better versions of earlier songs” for the best track from My Neighbor / My Creator. The live take of the affecting “I Hope You Die” casts aside the keyboards and saxophone of the EP version for a more typical transition from solo guitar and voice to fiery, Andy Cohen-esque soloing. (Side note: If you’re unaware of my fondness for the guitar work Andy Cohen of Silkworm/Bottomless Pit, this is mammoth praise, even if Wasner's still developing her style. “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” and “Tarnished Angel” have two of my favorite solos ever.) What makes this transition work is resonance of the material. “I Hope You Die” offers a remarkably open tale of (I assume) Wasner’s mother’s illness. There’s both poetry—“At the ringing of a bell / Or at the falling of a tree / If you think of it at all / Remember me / Just me”—and exasperation—“Against your will / You are alive”—in the lyrics. The overwhelming catharsis on stage is such a natural amplification of these emotions. That performance has been stuck in my gut for a month. The original is still wonderful, but it’s hard to go back.

In line with their rapid release schedule, Wye Oak is recording a new album now. I was treated to a few tracks from it, most notably “Holy Holy.” The majority of the song is a likable, mid-tempo strummer, but at 4:25 of this clip Wye Oak kicks it into another gear. Between Wasner’s ascendant vocal melody and the anthemic guitar work, this part of “Holy Holy” reminded me of catching new songs from my favorite bands on 120 Minutes back in the ’90s and rewinding the tape over and over to burn the good parts into memory. It’s a hell of a teaser for Wye Oak’s third album.

There isn’t an official release date for that album yet, but Wasner did mention that it will be the first Wye Oak album pressed on vinyl. (They did have a split seven-inch for Record Store Day 2008 with Destroyer.) Wasner also discussed the possibility of The Knot getting a vinyl pressing for Record Store Day 2011, so hopefully Merge will apply some of the considerable Arcade Fire cash to that deserving cause. In the meantime, track down this EP, view Wye Oak’s superlative cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” in the AV Club’s Undercover series, listen to their covers of “Dance My Pain Away” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and check out their upcoming tour dates with David Bazan. It's quite a to-do list.

(One final note: Found this and couldn't pass up sharing it: Wye Oak and the Supernaturals covering Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)," one of my favorite songs.)

The Haul 2010: The Depreciation Guild's Spirit Youth

The Depreciation Guild – Spirit Youth LP – Kanine, 2010 – $10 (Harvard Sq. Newbury Comics, 9/17)

The Depreciation Guild's Spirit Youth

Built on a Weak Spot tipped me off to the Depreciation Guild and their 2010 LP Spirit Youth back in May, but it took me a while to stop dipping my toes in the pool and finally dive in headfirst. The Depreciation Guild has been lumped into the ever-expanding class of nu-gaze groups, but there’s a welcome classicism to their sound. Their influences stretch beyond holy triumvirate of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive to incorporate the C86/twee/indie pop that blurred with shoegaze in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s both in England (The Darling Buds) and the US (Velocity Girl). This relationship was standard operating procedure back then, but nu-gaze—a so-bad-it’s great genre title I can’t stop myself from using—has asked for some time apart.

I usually don’t complain about that temporary separation, since I love the pummeling muscularity of A Place to Bury Strangers, the math-rock trappings of The Life and Times, and the post-metal textures of Jesu, but the Depreciation Guild’s sugary vocal hooks make a perfect pair with ample doses of glide guitar. (M83 used to claim this territory, but Anthony Gonzalez’s fixation on John Hughes movies led him astray.) They’re bolstered by the occasional appearance of 8-bit electronics, most noticeable on the intro to opening track “My Chariot,” but this chiptune aesthetic never overwhelms Spirit Youth. Instead, the Depreciation Guild manages to sound simultaneously modern and retro, updating shoegaze without losing its original charm.

This precise balancing act extends to Spirit Youth as an album. The C86 side comes out most clearly in the up-tempo “My Chariot” and “Crucify You,” but tornado winds of guitar in “November,” “Through the Snow,” and “White Moth” assuage any cringing twee-haters. Given the Depreciation Guild’s association with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—singer/guitarist Kurt Feldman plays drums in the latter, guitarist/singer Christoph Hochheim joins Pains on tour as a guitarist—one might expect more of an emphasis on the vintage indie pop, but Spirit Youth never loses sight of either side.

The Depreciation Guild is currently on tour—followed by a tour by their aforementioned brother band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I’m looking forward to catching them at T.T. the Bear’s tomorrow night and seeing if their stage presence is as classically informed as their sonics. If you’re stuck at home, you can check out the first product from Kurt Feldman’s similarly titled gaming company, The Depreciation Guild, Inc. TileWild is an appropriately retro-futuristic puzzle game for the iPhone. Hopefully it's as fun as Spirit Youth.

The Haul 2010: The For Carnation's The For Carnation

The For Carnation – The For Carnation LP – Touch & Go, 2000 – $28 (eBay, 7/22)

The For Carnation's The For Carnation

It took me until 2010 to finally appreciate The For Carnation’s self-titled LP. Much like the group’s two previous releases, 1995’s Fight Songs EP and 1996’s Marshmallows, very little happens on The For Carnation. Those hoping for the climactic catharsis of Slint’s “Washer” and “Good Morning, Captain”—the two most physically jarring examples of Spiderland’s brilliance—encounter no dramatic crescendos in The For Carnation’s catalog, only carefully pruned plateaus of superhuman patience. The most dramatic moment on any of these releases comes on Fight Songs’s “Grace Beneath the Pines” when McMahan’s quietly spoken vocals become uncomfortable loud with the line “with crack heads and assassins and burn victims” before mumbling his way into the closing “and millionaires' sons.” There’s no incisive harmonic riff accompanying this peak, only a single strummed chord, far from the bombastic payoff of Slint’s high-water marks. For a band relying on patience, The For Carnation had worn mine thin by Marshmallows.

It certainly didn’t help that Slint’s offspring—Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in particular—reveled in the dynamic range that The For Carnation had left behind. The immediacy of a distorted guitar climax is hard to deny. Yet as the thrill of those rollercoaster rides became commonplace by Godspeed’s demise and Mogwai’s descent into routine, I should have recognized that The For Carnation offered a crucial aspect of Slint’s legacy that had gone all-but-ignored in the formation of post-rock’s playbook: Brian McMahan’s engrossing storytelling.

This emphasis on storytelling is certainly not the sexiest or the most earth-shattering element of Slint’s success, but as Scott at Pretty Goes with Pretty (the author of the upcoming 33 1/3 on Spiderland, an honor which fills me with envy) eloquently puts it, Slint “earn[s] its drama,” and I’ll fill in the gap by saying that the storytelling is a big part of how they earn it. He mentions how “Don, Aman” thrives on “a palpable sense of foreboding and anxiety, both lyrically and musically.” It’s precisely that mood that The For Carnation explores. Each track, ranging from 5:36 to 9:29, plots a measured course through dimly lit wilderness, and five of the six are driven by McMahan’s involving storytelling.

I’ll focus on closing track “Moonbeams,” since it finally broke my decade-long mental block with The For Carnation. The musical backdrop is deceptive; built upon a lyrical bass line, a skeletal drum beat, intermittent guitar phrases, a cricket-like electronic whirr, and a haunting piano loop buried in the mix, it initially recalls the austerity of Marshmallows, but Christian Fredrickson’s (of Rachel’s) string arrangements add melodrama-free depth. It would make a worthy instrumental, but McMahan’s lyrics provide the song’s anxious tension. The opening couplet “Scatter the roots of our passage tonight / Discard the memories we chose to survive” hints at the song’s elliptical narrative, which only grows more confounding with each verse. The second verse offers, “When she was five years old there’s cake and bright lights / and when she was ten she became the maid’s bride.” The third turns the pronoun back around—“Stand up and face it although you’re half dead / Try to remember though they’ve taken your head”—then becomes inclusive: “Why we sleep fully dressed and rise only from bed / Who did this to us? Who did this to us?” Each softly sung line in “Moonbeams” resonates exponentially over the eerie landscape. (Taking ten seconds in between lines certainly helps that effect.) Piecing together a concrete narrative like the carnival trip of Slint’s “Breadcrumb Trail” from these disparate mental images is impossible—McMahan closes the song with “I climb to the top and I find where I am,” but he doesn’t pass along the coordinates. “Moonbeams” evokes (and occasionally invokes) a dream world of intangible unease. And the best part? You’re stuck there.

That’s the notion that took me so long to grasp: The For Carnation’s greatness lies in their staunch unwillingness to break the tension, to provide the natural release of a “Washer” or a “Good Morning, Captain.” “Tales [Live from the Crypt]” comes the closest, teetering precariously on the slashing guitar chords that might trigger an avalanche of noise, but it never topples. A decade ago I would have bellowed for chaos in this moment, but now I recognize how the convergence of all of the song’s instrumental tensions is better left with the threat partially revealed but not engaged or eliminated. Almost nothing happens, after all, but the desire for a break in the tension is transformed into a need.

The For Carnation is loaded with potential contradictions. Its sonic plateaus might encourage placement in your bedtime listening pile, but the songwriting demands foreground listening. It seems austerely minimal, but the attention to detail is astonishing. (Having guest performances from Kim Deal, Rachel Haden, Britt Walford, and John McEntire, among others, certainly helps.) It’s the closest companion album for Slint’s Spiderland, even if it casts aside that album’s most exciting moments. It’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade, even though it ignored the prevailing trends of the genre, specifically instrumental songwriting and noisy climaxes. A more accurate statement is that it’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade because it ignores those trends.

The Haul 2010: Tarentel's We Move Through Weather

Tarentel – We Move Through Weather 2LP – Temporary Residence, 2004 (9/17 Charlie Wagner)

Tarentel's We Move Through Weather

Hearing this album again in the midst of my deep-dive into Mogwai’s discography makes me wonder if I chose the wrong group to spotlight. Tarentel received comparisons to Mogwai when 1999’s From Bone to Satellite was released, which both made sense—both groups plied their trade in guitar-centric post-rock—and sold Tarentel’s emerging drone and ambient tendencies short. Whereas Mogwai’s more recent albums are essentially a refinement of their 1999 release, Come on Die Young, Tarentel’s much more severe evolution has laid waste to the careful arrangements and distorted build-ups of From Bone to Satellite. I personally prefer the more familiar terrain of From Bone to Satellite and the superb compilation Ephemera to Tarentel’s later, more challenging work, but the elegant atmosphere of 2001’s The Order of Things, the rhythmic drone of 2004’s We Move Through Weather, and the psychedelic blur of 2007’s Ghetto Beats on the Surface of the Sun each offer a decidedly different take on Tarentel.

If each of these releases sounds like the product of a different band, that’s not entirely off-base. Only Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Danny Grody remain from the Satellite line-up for We Move Through Weather, with the prolific Kenseth Thibodeau having departed for projects like Sleeping People, Howard Hello, and Prints. Two of the additions signal changes in Tarentel’s sonic profile, since Tony Cross is credited with violin, waterphone, and hydrophone, while Steve Dye is credited with bass clarinet, clariphone, flubaphone, gankogui, and double ski horn (some of which are custom-made instruments). Former Sonna drummer Jim Redd makes the biggest difference, since his bustling tribal rhythms are pushed up front for “Bump Past, Cut Up Through Wind,” “A Cloud No Bigger Than a Man’s Head,” and “Hello! We Move Through Weather.”

If you’re hoping to hear “For Carl Sagan, Part Two,” look elsewhere. This emphasis of droning horns and tribal rhythms over discernible guitar figures distances We Move Through Weather from both From Bone to Satellite and The Order of Things. Melody is hard to come by, with the minimal piano work of “Bump Past” and “We’re the Only Ghosts Here” providing welcome exceptions to this rule. Instead, We Move Through Weather turns its countless instrument credits into a disorienting fog with few paths out. Specifying the title not as “We’re moving through this cloud” but “We’re moving through use of this cloud” clarifies things slightly, but We Move Through Weather does not value clarity.

I’ll return to my original thought on whether Tarentel Discographied would be more rewarding than Mogwai Discographied with an epiphany: Tarentel’s discography is already set up perfectly for a chronological exploration. You start with the structured post-rock of From Bone to Satellite, which presumably appeals to the widest audience. If you’re still interested, Ephemera collects a number of rewarding variations on this template. Next, you cast aside the crescendos for the ambient The Order of Things. Like to take that ambience a step further? Get weirder? Try out the miasmic We Move Through Weather. Still on board? Well, Tarentel’s got four twelve-inches of drifting psychedelic fuzz for you with Ghetto Beats from the Surface of the Sun. It’s hard to extract a single, monumental song from We Move Through Weather to use as a signpost of their progress—there’s no “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” here. Unlike Mogwai, Tarentel don’t have song types like “the vocal slow-core ballad,” “the moody crescendo crasher,” or “the mellow, vaguely electronic breather.” Tarentel doesn’t return to what worked before or improve on past attempts. They just move forward.