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The Haul: Thelonious Monk, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, Archers of Loaf, and Volcano Suns

I first visited RRRecords when my friends Howard and Scott invited me on a trip up to Lowell to visit the store and see the nearby Jack Kerouac exhibit, which displayed the original scroll of On the Road. I learned a few lessons about RRRecords during that first visit: one, always call ahead to make sure Ron is there and that the store is open; two, no, really, call ahead with a specific time; three, it’s a haven for noise music; and four, bring cash. We ended up wandering around Lowell because we visited during Ron’s lunch hour, but once we got in the store I immediately wished I’d brought more cash. Even without a penchant for noise music there was more than enough for me to get excited about—if memory serves, I picked up a long-desired 2LP copy of Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs and $4.50 copies of David Bowie’s Low and the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder. While this trip wasn’t quite as astonishing of a deal, five solid LPs for $35 total is worth a visit to Lowell.

101. Thelonious Monk – Monk’s Dream LP – Columbia, 1963 – $8

Thelonious Monk's Monk's Dream

I went up to RRRecords with the intent to purchase at least one jazz album, whether original or reissue, since the stock is usually good and reasonably priced. This in-shrink reissue of Monk’s Dream was a mere $8, a few bucks cheaper than any of the jazz selections at Newbury Comics. I only had one Thelonious Monk LP in my collection, a worn copy of Monk in France from a dollar bin, and he seemed like a worthy candidate for expansion. His piano style isn’t flashy, rather insistently idiosyncratic, veering off in unexpected melodies without losing track of a song. A few of the keywords from the sleeve notes are “fun” and “humor”; there’s a welcome lightness to Monk. It’s excellent background music, but particular elements reward closer attention, like the percussive trills near the end of “Sweet and Lovely.” Monk is also a remarkably deferential bandleader, letting tenor sax player Charles Rouse take the lead on the title track.

I have to note that Monk’s Dream, his first LP for Columbia, primarily features music that he had previously recorded and released on other labels. Given that other jazz luminaries like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane were focused on releasing all-new material, pushing themselves further with each set, it’s a bit of a disappointment that Monk’s Dream is a mid-career best-of (best certainly applies; nothing here feels unnecessary), but perhaps Monk was fine with progressing his style on existing material. It’s a strange concept for someone so ensconced in rock music, but standards were kept fresh in jazz for a reason.

102. Terry Riley – A Rainbow in Curved Air LP – Columbia, 1967 – $8

Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air

In my seemingly endless search for Steve Reich LPs, I may have ignored his peer in minimalist music, Terry Riley. Reich, Riley, and Philip Glass form the triumvirate of contemporary composers associated with the minimalist movement in the public eye, although Glass has attempted to distance himself from its trappings. I own one other Terry Riley album, The Harp of New Albion, a solo piano endeavor from 1986 that explores the possibilities of just intonation, but A Rainbow in Curved Air carries more historical renown, second only to In C in his catalog. Rainbow is certainly more striking than Harp, sounding like a colony of bees swarming around a piano. The title track’s rolling, shifting synthesizer lines inspired Pete Townshend’s parts in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” (note the titular reference), but I prefer the less pointed instrumentation (organ, saxophone, tape loops) on the other piece, “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band.” “Poppy Nogood” was originally performed in a six-hour concert and later released in a somewhat longer version, but the twenty-one minutes here are trance-inducing. Both compositions remind me of Reich’s later Music for 18 Musicians, but with more emphasis on improvising the recurring patterns.

I suspect various factors contributed to Glass and Reich overtaking Riley in terms of popular appeal—the former collaborates with pop stars and scores films, the latter’s works are both dense and short enough to be perfect for album-length recordings and frequently touch upon political and cultural unrest—but overlooking Riley isn’t a mistake I’ll make again. First, however, I’ll have to find out which recordings come most recommended, something that’s never been an issue for Reich’s catalog. Starting with A Rainbow in Curved Air would’ve been a wise decision.

103. Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped LP – Geffen, 2006 – $5

Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped

Sonic Youth forms the musical backbone for many indie/alternative guitar-rockers, but they’ve never attained that status for me. I’ve logged countless hours with Daydream Nation and lesser amounts of time with Sister, Goo, Dirty, and Washing Machine, with smatterings of their other records, but I’ve never counted them as one of my favorite groups, never rushed out to buy their new album, never seen them live. The last admission might be the most startling, but I don’t recall them playing Champaign during my college years, and I had to be excited about a band to make the drive up to Chicago. It's possible that seeing them live would do it, but their shows aren't exactly bargain priced.

Here are four logical points when I could’ve gained that level of excitement for Sonic Youth: 1. The group appears on The State’s CBS special, performing a truncated version of “The Diamond Sea.” It’s beautiful in an unfamiliar way and completely unexpected for network TV. 2. I get a copy of Daydream Nation from Columbia House and hear “Teenage Riot” for the first time. It’s an awesome song, but I get stuck on it and don’t absorb the rest of the album for a while. 3. A high school classmate does a presentation on the group in senior year public speaking, playing parts of their earlier works (which I did not care for at the time) and their more recent work. I wasn’t friends with the guy, which is baffling to me now. 4. I read (and reread) Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which prompted investigations or re-investigations into groups like Minor Threat, Fugazi, Misson of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., the Replacements, and Minutemen. All of these moments should’ve spoken more to me, should’ve pushed Sonic Youth up higher in my personal musical hierarchy, but didn’t quite do it. I gained an appreciation for Sonic Youth, but not a love.

So what stopped it from happening? Here are my six best guesses: 1. The members of Sonic Youth always seemed too cool for me, especially when they hosted 120 Minutes. That show introduced me to groups like Jawbox, Girls Against Boys, and Shudder to Think, but I suspect that either strange songs, weird personalities, or terrible videos delayed my fondness for later favorites. (Stereolab, I am looking at you.) Thurston and company appeared on the show with an aloofness that was a fuck off to anyone who didn’t care and a fist pump for those who did. Stuck in between, I didn’t know how to respond. 2. Speaking of too cool for their own good, Kim Gordon’s vocals annoy me 75% of the time. I do not feel alone in this sentiment. What I wouldn’t give to trade some of these songs for Lee Ranaldo vocals. 3. I should’ve heard Goo or Sister after Daydream Nation, not Washing Machine. 4. Given how important Sonic Youth were to 1980s independent rock and how much they evolved (no pun intended) during that decade, it would’ve been a lot more exciting to follow them then. 5. Sonic Youth’s vocals and lyrics often emphasize their art-scene detachment over the emotional undercurrent of many of my personal favorites. 6. As much as I respect them for constantly changing their approach, it causes them to often ignore their strengths in favor of noisy indulgences or unnecessary tangents. That I am complaining about tangents regarding Sonic Youth should be a huge sign that I’m probably never going to “get” them in the way that some friends of mine do. (Hello, Joe Martin.)

At this point I’m happy sticking with Daydream Nation, Sister, and Goo, with specific songs from the other albums (I almost forgot about their DVD, which is actually quite enjoyable throughout) and an occasional spin of SYR1: Anagrama, no longer forcing the issue with the group as a whole. Yet I’ve still picked up two cheap LP copies of Sonic Youth albums from RRRecords, first A Thousand Leaves last year, now Rather Ripped. Is it the value? Is it the lingering hope that one of these albums will click? Who knows. Like almost all of their recent records, Rather Ripped was lavished with praise upon its release, meaning that I had to dutifully ignore recommendations from friends to check it out ASAP. I’ll take my sweet time, thanks.

On the surface, Rather Ripped is a marked change of pace, filled with tidy track times and focused songwriting. There’s still plenty of trademark left turns to be found, but in general, they close out their stay on Geffen with an atypically approachable album. The first three tracks are great, Moore’s “Incinerate” in particular, but “Sleepin Around” and “What a Waste” have grating hooks that I’d love to pull from my brain. The rest of the record is solid, if not quite mind-blowing. The main problem is ironic, given issue #5 above. Usually I want less fucking around from Sonic Youth, this time I wanted more. Trim a few annoying songs, spread out more on a few of the good ones, and it’s a noticeably better album. As is, it was worth the $5 and will likely get more spins than A Thousand Leaves.

104. Archers of Loaf – All the Nations Airports LP – Alias, 1996 – $8

Archers of Loaf's All the Nations Airports

I had my choice of Archers of Loaf’s All the Nations Airports and Girls Against Boys’ Cruise Yourself for my classic 1990s indie rock double dip purchase. Airports isn’t the picture disc edition and Cruise Yourself wasn’t the first pressing with the “Red Bar” single, so I opted for the album not missing any bonus tracks. It’s all about the music, see.

Aside from the completely superb Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP, it’s been quite a while since I’ve listened to an Archers of Loaf album in full thanks to my 24-track best of compilation, Calling Out the A&R. Don’t view this habit as an indictment of the group’s albums—there are plenty of great tracks missing from my compilation, many of which I’ve seen on “competing” attempts to condense the Archers’ brilliance into a single disc—but like Pavement (and, to a lesser extent, Polvo, both of whom have earned similar compilations), AOL has such tremendous highlights that it’s impossible not to focus on classics like “Web in Front,” “The Lowest Part Is Free,” “Harnessed in Slums,” “Scenic Pastures,” and “Fashion Bleeds.”

So what about their albums? Icky Mettle’s penchant for lo-fi noise turns some away, but it’s hard to top its combination of raw, spontaneous energy and polished hooks. Eric Bachmann commented directly on this energy in a 2005 interview—“When we first came out we had that energy. It's a weird thing that you can't put your finger on...I listened to Icky Mettle, and I almost cringe when I hear it.” I suspect he’s particularly embarrassed by amorphous moments like “Toast,” but I’ll gladly accept such indulgences if it gets me the oblique pop of “Web in Front” and the noisy intensity of “Backwash” in return. Vs. the Greatest of All Time is a tidier five songs and seventeen minutes, but those five songs are all stand-outs. (If only they’d included the tighter version of “Revenge” from The Speed of Cattle with two fewer minutes of spaghetti western noodling.) Vee Vee makes a jump in fidelity and structure without losing inspiration or bite, but I tend to lose focus during the second side. Airports, their first album with major label distribution, holds together better than any of their other releases, but doesn’t quite hit the highs of its predecessors. The rarities compilation The Speed of Cattle is among the finest of its kind, featuring plenty of glorious b-sides and a few superior alternate takes of album tracks. White Trash Heroes, their 1998 swan song, is more commendable than many other final statements from 1990s indie rockers (cough, Shapes, cough, Terror Twilight) because of its stern adherence to exploring new stylistic territory, but only half of the album’s songs are actually good. Only White Trash Heroes and The Speed of Cattle encourage a best-of compilation, but Icky Mettle and Vee Vee certainly look better through the rose-colored glasses of their strongest songs.

Returning to All the Nations Airports on vinyl makes sense, since it’s defined by how the pieces fit together. Putting the arrival and departure times on the back of the albums for each song, including the length of the pause between them, isn’t just a mark of aesthetic consistency—it’s a huge tell for the importance of the album’s sequencing. The brief “Strangled by the Stereo Wire” ends abruptly and then jumps into the title track like a well-rehearsed trick of their live set. “Worst Defense” blurs into “Attack of the Killer Bees.” The absorbing piano ballad “Chumming the Ocean” is an absolutely perfect closer for side A, necessitating a brief pause before you flip the LP over. There’s a noticeable pause between the western-informed instrumental “Bumpo” and the introspective churning of “Form and File.” Sandwiching the desperation of “Distance Comes in Droves” with a pair of instrumentals, “Acromegaly” and “Bombs Away,” ends the LP on a high note. Thanks to this superb sequencing (and the strength of the individual songs), Airports turns potentially token elements like the piano ballad and the transitional instrumentals into the standouts.

Airports’ strengths—consistency and sequencing—are at odds with the best-of approach, which might have lowered the album’s status when viewed through the lens of my compilation. That doesn’t excuse the lack of a “Harnessed in Slums” (“Chumming the Oceans” equals its quality but not its tempo), but it certainly makes the double dip more rewarding than the usual “But it has bigger artwork!” rhetoric.

105. Volcano Suns – Thing of Beauty 2LP – SST, 1989 – $6

Volcano Suns' Thing of Beauty

Even after catching up with All Night Lotus Party with Record Collection Reconciliation, I still have an unplayed Volcano Suns album in my collection (Bright Orange Years), but I decided to pick up Thing of Beauty anyway. I often see Volcano Suns at Looney Tunes for $15 or $20 (as I’ve mentioned before, Peter Prescott used to work at their Cambridge location), so finding a double album for $6 seemed like a steal.

There’s no doubt that Thing of Beauty is a double album. There are stray tracks like the meandering “No Place” and the fourth side is padded with an enthusiastic cover of Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” and the CD pressing adds MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” and Devo’s “Red-Eye Express.” (Tangent: I wouldn’t mind if 2LP sets with the fourth side left blank added b-sides or bonus covers; just leave them unmarked on the sleeve. Why waste the vinyl?) On the whole, Thing of Beauty is more melodic, less aggressive than All Night Lotus Party, but it’s not a drastic reversal. It’s also noticeably more democratic than ANLP, letting bassist Bob Weston (producer for Rodan’s Rusty and Shellac bassist) and new guitarist David Kleiler write and sing their fair share of songs, which adds different voices and pads the runtime. It’s strange that drummer/vocalist Peter Prescott is the lone remaining member from their first incarnation, but one spin of the brawny Mission of Burma-esque opener “Barricade” suggests that he had the rights to that brand of post-punk. If Thing of Beauty had twelve strong tracks instead of twenty, I’d put it on again in a heartbeat, but it’s begging for a reprogrammed track listing.

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