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

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

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

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

Bitch Magnet's Ben Hur

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

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

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

Kerosene 454's Situation at Hand

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

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

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

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

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

Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory

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

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

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

Camper Van Beethoven's II & III

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

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