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

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

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

Don Caballero's For Respect

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

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

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

Bedhead's WhatFunLifeWas

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

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

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

Mr. Bungle's Disco Volante

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

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

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

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

Tar's Toast

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

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

Dumptruck's D Is for Dumptruck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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