History Sifter: Concept 96

If you still consider Richie Hawtin a titan of techno, you probably live in Europe and go to electronica festivals. Except as a megastar DJ, he's dropped out of any other conversations of electronic music. There's been precious little new material from the Plastikman camp in the last 15 years and the work he built his reputation on remained unavailable on streaming services for far too long. To any casual techno fan, Richie Hawtin had all but disappeared.

Even though you can finally listen to most of his catalog online, I would argue he left out one of his most striking works, and it still remains absent. In 1996, Hawtin released one 12-inch single, every month, called Concept 1-12. Each was a strident, minimal beat exploration using a purposefully restricted set of gear and sounds. They were suitable for only the bravest and most inventive DJs. Reportedly, he recorded the tracks live, in the studio, and mixed each single at the last minute, giving himself little time to fuss.

I never managed to get ahold of more than a few of the original singles—but for a brief period, his Plus8 label offered a large cross-section of them, collected on CD. The Concept:96 collection remains a touchstone of my aesthetic development. In my very unscientific surveys, the people I've introduced it to—some who have little use for minimal electronica—are unananimously impressed.

It's easy to cite a handful of releases that are clearly influenced by the Concept series. Many of them, like snd's makesndcassette, ended up as landmark records in my personal history, as well. I wish I knew why Richie Hawtin chose to leave Concept:96 in the past, while he was bringing the rest of his catalogue into the present. It's too esoteric to change the written history of techno in the 90s (or even about Hawtin himself) but it's still one of the most daring—and therefore, rewarding—albums of his career.

Strangely, it even seems the (also out-of-print) remix record Thomas Brinkmann made, Re:Concept, is easier to find. These versions were made by simply playing the Concept singles on Brinkmann's vari-speed turntable with a sepearate tone arm for each channel—the same device he'd previously used to make versions of Wolfgang Voigt's Studio 1 releases. Sometimes, I suppose it pays to have a gimmick.

Audio Umami: Mecca Normal

Pigeon holes are sometimes damnably deep. Mecca Normal, the duo of Jean Smith and David Lester is a fixture of the Pacific Northwest indie-punk scene. They're a major signpost in feminist protest rock; the preeminent proto-riot grrl group. Listening to their mid-90s album, The Eagle and the Poodle, one question kept rattling around my head, though: why are they not a feature in avant rock discussions. Their music frequently experiments in form, texture and expression, more than any of the bands billed as their peers.

Their avant bonafides extend well beyond that. Vocalist Jean Smith had a side project with New Zealand avant-legends, Peter Jefferies and Michael Morley (of This Kind of Punishment and the Dead C, respectively). Sadly, two records they cut together remain out-of-print, even in this digital streaming age. She even has an edgy, (mostly) instrumental solo album to her name—which is nothing to say of what an unconventional vocalist she is.

Why then are Mecca Normal so rarely discussed in those terms?

Again, I'm brought to the conclusion that feminism is like a scarlet letter in criticism. Being a woman who sings about female experience is a frame many can't see beyond. You're forever tossed on the Lilith Fair pile (though Mecca Normal were likely way too outré for that ilk). Which is not to say that Smith shouldn't rightly be proud of her place as a feminist punk icon, but I'd like to leave that aside for a moment and talk about just how experimental her and Mecca Normal's work is.

Let's start with how stark and confrontational Mecca Normal can sound. The precedent for their format—guitar and singer—stretches back to the very beginnings of rock and folk music. It is THE original format. Billy Bragg had already helped forklift the concept into punk rock by the early 80s—but Bragg also had far more ties to traditional melody and songwriting. It's like comparing the Clash to Minor Threat: they're both punk and share significant DNA, but musically they're pursuing different ends.

While David Lester knows his way around a guitar, and isn't afraid of a solid riff, he's equally willing to wallow in dissonance and distortion. The gnarlier aspects of the electric guitar are not just colorations or accents thrown in for decoration, either. He'll linger in them for the duration of an entire song, if need be.

Jean Smith matches him blow by blow. Her phrasing is on time, but she works around the beat, rarely sitting squarely on it. Her tonal range is filled with flat plateaus where she'll draw words out, distending them. I'd like to think it a compliment that the closest antecedent I can find for her delivery is Yoko Ono—even though their styles share little in common.

Of course, here to, I fall prey to my own gripe: I could easily pick a more relevant comparison if I weren't limiting myself to female precedents. Johnny Lydon's haunting warbles across the early PiL albums comes to mind. It's a comparison far closer in time, style and genre—yet I pass it up because we unconsciously limit how we talk about women in music. Hell, when 2 Foot Flame starts really kicking up dust, comparisons to Kieji Haino wouldn't be far off. That would elevate Jean Smith to the same circle as some of the most extreme rock ever made.

Smith, and Mecca Normal, have cemented a place in feminist music history, so let's take a minute to appreciate their other innovations. Let's see about making sure they are mentioned in the annals of avant rock, too. Don't let Smith's words completely overshadow their deeds.

a formal introduction

John Zorn is so prolific he makes indie-rock's biggest motormouth, Robert Pollard, look lazy by comparison. Even issuing upwards of 5 records a year, the consistency of each Zorn release is unimpeachable. Through endless hours of composing, recording, performing running a label, a not-for-profit arts foundation and a performance venue, Zorn has become a singular titan and kingmaker; the very image of the NYC avant garde.

Not to take away from the maestro, but he does sport crack team of masterful musicians at his ready disposal, bringing every passing whimsy to life. Hell, if I had Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mark Feldman Ikue Mori and the rest of the gang on speed dial, I could probably come up with a pretty decent album.

As such, his discography is daunting to dip into. It was intimidating when I first started collecting his albums in the late-80s, when it was just infinitesimal fraction of what new listeners face. (I was aided by a natural culling, since a lot of it used to be on expensive import labels). As nothing other than a devoted fan, I thought I would provide my own JOHN ZORN PRIMER, for the uninitiated. I've broken my choices into eight categories, giving curious listeners a framework to explore within.

MASADA

It all started for me with Masada: Zorn's long-running, much lauded jazz quartet with Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. Though, not my first John Zorn record, it was the first that blew my mind. The Masada songbook—apparently 100-deep—was an attempt to square the circle between his jewish musical heritage and his jazz tradition roots (a legacy many of his detractors questioned). Masada was also the opening salvo for his current productivity: releasing records in sets of 3, all recorded over just a few days. While there will always be special place in my heart for Gimel (or Vol.3 if you're counting), Zayin (vol.7) is an exemplary entry. Take the opener alone, Shevet represents virtually everything this group mastered so well. it's complex, fiery, melodic, exotic and sensual.

Masada eventually evolved from a band into an entire category of music unto itself: encompassing a string trio, an amped-up, electrified band and an entire 30-plus series of records, featuring different bands documenting a second songbook, titled the Book of Angels. One of the most compelling of the working groups is Bar Kokhba—a sort of chamber-jazz/ lounge-jazz hybrid sextet. With the Masada String Trio at its core, he added Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista on drums and percussion, and Marc Ribot on electric guitar. Bar Kokhba's Book of Angles album, Lucifer, is luxurious listening.

GAME PIECES

In the late 70s, Zorn began a series of exploratory compositions looking for new a new way to compose for improvisors. In previous decades, others had pioneered different techniques, like graphic scores or indeterminancy. Zorn hit upon a brilliant idea: gather a group of improvisors together and have a conductor tell them when or how to play but (crucially) not what to play. These works were collectively known as Game Pieces. The conductor uses hand signals and flash cards to guide the players, who themselves have opportunities to democratically alter the piece from within. An early game piece, not recorded or released until more recently, Xu Feng, was given a fearsome run-through  by a double trio of guitars, drums and electronics. The results are, by turns, mysterious and furious.

The most famous—and most performed—of the game pieces, is Cobra. You could call it the culmination; the end result of the previous works. Performances of Cobra are wildly explosive, filled with a scattershot, high-speed roulette of ideas and styles. Naturally, these game pieces are as much about who is performing as the work itself, a fact made crystal clear when the second album of Cobra recordings was released.  Tokyo Operations, as the title implies, is comprised of Japanese musicians and improvisors, on instruments both modern and traditional. It could not feel more different than the original Cobra album—released on HatHut in the early 80s.

JAZZCORE & AVANT ROCK

John Zorn was already dubbed l'enfant terribles as early as the late-80s, but haters had no idea what was about to come their way. In quick succession, he introduced two bands for which there is no better description than 'thrash jazz'. Naked City, with it's wild, cut-n-paste aesthetic and all-star line-up—including Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron joining Zorn—gets all the love. The other, Painkiller, was a trio of Zorn, fellow downtown denizen, Bill Laswell on bass, along with former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. Their first couple of their LPs, released on the Relapse label, are metallic in attack. Their third record, Execution Ground, is another beast entirely. The double album includes only three extended songs and two even-more-extended, ambient-dub remixes. The songs are spacious and textural, yet even more menacing than Painkiller's thrashy early material. It's all long horn squeals, reverberated bursts of blast-drums, rubbery, thick sub-bass vibrations and echoing howls.

After Masada, as John Zorn's work turned more towards lustrous melodicism, many had thought his days of audio devilry behind him. Enter, Moonchild: a trio of Joey Baron (again), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle-bassist, turned-jazzbo) and his former bandmate, the infamous Mike Patton (of Faith no More, Fantômas, and more). Across six albums, the band built a volatile vocabulary of explosive, metallic prog-jazz. Dunn's electric bass is monstrous and distorted. Baron is a ridiculously expressive drummer for how volatile his playing can be. Mike Patton is the gibberish-spewing madman with 100 different voices at the center—from flayed squeals or doomy growls to chanted mantras. John Zorn takes irreverent glee in pushing each of these players to their dextrous limits. In a way, the Moonchild repertoire is strangely operatic, Wagnerian in epic intensity. Through Moonchild, Zorn might yet reclaim the 'rock opera' from the trash-bin of history.

IMPROVISATION

John Zorn does not, himself, play on his records much anymore, content to play the role of more composer, conductor and maestro. It may well be, that like many composers, he can now write pieces beyond his own ability to play—which is saying something. Anytime I've seen him perform, lately, it's been a free improv setting. While his discography is weighted towards compositions, he does have a number of truly vital improv albums. The solo, Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol.3 or Ganryu Island with Sato Michihiro on koto are both vital. I've always loved Downtown Lullaby, an easy-going meet-up of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Wayne Horvitz and Bobby Previte. By the time they cut this, they'd been playing together for decades. Lullaby feels casual—a conversation among old friends. Where many free-improv albums are busy and fiery, this is downright groovy.

The Hermetic Organ series is a curious series of albums, each improvisations on a different pipe organ. In recent interviews Zorn compares playing these immense instruments to improvising with an orchestra—the range of voices and possibility for concurrent action is so vast. I saw one of these performances in NYC, and was floored. His explorations of the organ—and by extension, the cathedral itself—are highly textural. Almost inaudible highs fill the hidden corners of the space and subsonic lows shake the very mortar. This first disc in the series is by turns atmospheric and dramatic. Though piano was his first instrument, Zorn has only appeared on keyboards a scant few times before this. The Hermetic Organ proves him intimate with the complex organism that is a pipe organ.

EXOTICA & NEW ROMANTICISM

Somewhere after the turn of the century, a new voice started to hold sway in Zorn's work. He refers to these pieces as 'New Romantic'. The works are deeply melodic and some of the most plainly beautiful he has written or recorded. Modes and themes developed when building the Masada songbooks are apparent, as well are shades of Martin Denny's exotica and Astor Piazzolla's tangos. Kenny Wollessen is an almost constant presence on vibraphone, giving the albums a shimmering quality. Mount Analogue is a major and unique work in the catalog. It plays as a single, multi-part suite, performed by longtime Zorn cohort, percussionist Cyro Baptista and his Banquet of the Spirits (with Wollessen guesting, of course).

The most gorgeous and prolific band performing new romantic works is the Gnostic Trio, who took their name from their first album, the Gnostic Preludes. The trio made up of Carol Emanuel on harp, Kenny Wollessen on vibes and Bill Frisell (back in the fold) on guitar are sublime together. Each of the instruments has its distinct sound, but at any given point, each one becomes so intertwined with the others, they'll create a single hybrid voice. Even the solos are deeply woven within the fabric of the flow and the group interplay. It's difficult to spot where they begin or end. The results are spellbinding.

FILM SCORES

The early groundwork for the new romantic pieces can be found amongst John Zorn's prolific scoring for film. There are a handful albums in his Filmworks series that presage his exotica bent, but I'm partial to The Treatment. Featuring a group led by violin and accordion, it steers toward a stronger tango feel. Without percussion the album also carries airs of chamber jazz. The cues are long enough to give each piece the feel of a fully-fleshed song. The group clearly enjoy digging into these light-hearted charts.

The Filmworks series totals 25 albums, now, and encompasses almost every aspect of Zorn's oeuvre. Workingman's Death, a score for a documentary about deadly jobs in third world countries, is a rarer facet of Zorn. Many of his more abrasive works are also visceral and rockist. Workingman's Death, instead, is seething and unsettling. Heavy on electronics, there is little purchase for the listener. It's all slippery, unstable tonal centers and uncomfortable pitches. It cloudy, threatening atmosphere is engrossing.

ORCHESTRAL & CHAMBER WORKS

With the establishment of his own label in the mid-90s, John Zorn began releasing albums of orchestral and chamber music. At first, it seemed a lark, has, but as various strains of his work have come together, it's shaping up as a major part of his legacy. When given the palette of an entire symphony orchestra, his penchant for fast-paced changes actually speeds up. Now, different voices in the orchestra can change gears in shifting layers. It's enough to give a casual listener whiplash. It's in this format, more than elsewhere, the influence of the Looney Toons composer, Carl Stalling, is apparent. There's a darker, dramatic streak in Zorn's work, though. His fascination with mysticism and the occult color his orchestrations with a gothic twist.

There's more to his orchestral work than virtuosic showpieces. Dark River, scored for a duo concert bass drums, is all restraint—focusing on silence, spacing and deep resonance. Kol Nidre is a quartet that's been scored for strings or reeds (and even performed in a full orchestral arrangement). An insistent but plaintive work, it hinges on a simple concept: a single tremulous chord is held in sustained vibrato, sweeping up and down in force is periodically punctuated by a poignant, melodic chorus. Making the most of expectations and anticipation, he builds drama by making you wait for the melody, or refocusing your attention by dipping the held pitch unexpectedly. A versatile and lovely work, Kol Nidre is one his most performed and recorded chamber pieces.

AVANT COMPOSITION

There is an especially hard to categorize area of John Zorn's catalog. Highly composed, but not in any traditional mode, for lack of a better term, it is simply 'avant garde'. New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands is a prime example of this vague terrain (and one of my all-time favorites). Three extended pieces of spoken word, with texts from different authors and each narrated in a different language (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese). They're accompanied by a different twin pairing of guitar, drum or keyboard duos. The music closely follows the rhythm and cadence of speech, making the music both logical yet unpredictable.

Nova Express crosses two streams of Zorn's career. Taking influence from William Burroughs' and Brian Gysin's experiments with cut-ups, Nova Express recasts the hyperactivity of Naked City with instrumentation and moods from his new romantic work. The breakneck performances on the record are utterly amazing. Kenny Wollessen is dextrous on the vibraphone, playing with untold speed and precision. Pianist John Medeski leads the band through hairpin turns while Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn whip the band to ever-more harrowing speeds. As they careen through Zorn's charts, it's like cliffside car chase from a film noir watched in fast-forward.

These sixteen albums are just the tip of the iceberg. I long ago lost count of how many records Zorn's put out—his discography easily clears 2-or-300—and he shows no sign of slowing down. Each of them was chosen to stand in for an entire branch of John Zorn's output. Even within these categories, I tried to pick records that were recorded at least a decade apart, to give a broader sampling of his evolution and growth. I hope I've provided a foothold, some insight or access to an artist who is, at this point, a living legend.

and i still miss you

"All the things I hate in this fucking world haven't gone away"

I'm not much of a lyrics guy. I say that like it's some kind of hard and fast rule, but every rule has exceptions. It holds (for the most part). I own the giant tome compiling all of Bob Dylan's lyrics, but my favorite Dylan songs still depend on his superb lyrics being delivered with a great performance, too. My biggest exception is J Church, the bay-area pop-punk that (sort of) could.

J Church were never innovators, and were no kind of virtuosos. They were never famous or even up-and-coming, yet they persevered for 15 years. They could afford passable production only about half the time (I'd say only two of their albums sound 'professional'). They had a revolving door membership, singer and guitarist Lance Hahn was the only constant. What endeared them to me was what Lance had to say.

Jawbreaker—by far the most beloved band of the era—were highly personal, proto-emo. Green Day—by far the most successful—were candied confections singing about… well, nothing really. J Churh were a working man's thinking band. Underneath a mere handful of bar chords and plain spoken words lurked huge ideas.

Like Fugazi, J Church's politics were inherently personal. Unlike them, nothing was so certain in Lance's world. His views were human, often muddled and always striving. Lance Hahn dealt more in self-examination than in strident edicts. One of his most overt statements, Part of the Problem, simply refuses to be chastised for abstaining from protest demonstrations. His personal songs would seamlessly veer political. Racked might amount to an unrequited love song, but he views it through a drunken, conflicted feminism, citing 'Dionysian polemics' along the way—all in a song less than 2 minutes long.

10 years ago today, I found out Lance Hahn had died. Luckily, I was on a visit home, sitting with a dear friend who could share the profound sense of loss I felt at that moment. I'm old enough to have seen many artists I grew up with (or otherwise loved) pass. My relationship to them doesn't much change—whatever it was when they died seems fixed in amber. J Church, though, continues to resonate as a living force with me.

J Church seemed to always grow with me. Albums would arrive, grappling with new issues and conceptual nuance at levels I just happened to be ready for. There are some songs, though, that I've found reserved—left like time capsules that have only made sense in my future. He wrote a farewell letter to San Francisco, Satanists Convene, that resonated with me only recently, when I was leaving NYC for good. So many of those sentiments rang true: What I loved about the city were memories. Whether I'd stayed or left—New York (or I) had moved on already.

I distinctly remember when fellow bay area punks, Green Day found their righteousness—making American Idiot as a commentary on the invasion of Iraq staged by the GW.Bush administration. It was chock full of overly long songs with positions so vague either side of the issue could still gleefully sing along. The same year, J Church released Society Is a Carnivorous Flower. It featured an unprecedented (for them) sidelong, multi-part, epic title track. It was, at heart, an examination of the 1968 Situationist riots in France. Esoteric, for sure, but it didn't feel dated. Lance discussed it with an eye to examining our current world, gaining a palpable sense of presence by toggling between second- and third-person narrative. I'm still unpacking its meanings and references.

I can honestly say I'm a better person for listening to J Church. Sometimes it felt like Lance would articulate what I felt better than I could for myself. Other times, he forced me to look inwards and challenge what I found there. I may have a more profound love for other bands, or I'm more fascinated or inspired by others, but I don't think I'll miss any band more than J Church.

"Tomorrow, if I haven't lost my mind,
I'll beg to borrow all the words I can't define"

Sonic Reducer

It was October, 2000 and I had a strange design gig I probably didn't deserve at my tender age, but this was the tech-bubble. At the time I was based out of Chicago, but was working for Discover Card on their animated Times Square billboard. In the rotation of ads and branding, we included a list of (largely free) shows that were happening around town, in cooperation with Time Out New York. When visiting NYC, I got to have lunch with the Time Out reps, scoring a press pass off them to see the Wire reunion gig at Irving Plaza that night.

No amount of Wire fandom prepared for what was about to happen. Opening for Wire was the Finnish electronic duo, Pan Sonic. The lot of aging punks, anxiously waiting to see their heroes, were having none of it. I don't know if it was a regular part of their set, but from my perspective in the balcony it seemed Pan Sonic got so annoyed with the loud, disinterested crowd they let loose an unfettered howl of feedback girded with a steady pulse of concussive kick drums and stood there, arms folded staring scoldingly at the geezers now covering their ears, for what seemed like 10 minutes.

At that moment, I was a fan.

Over the next few years, Pan Sonic (and Mika Vainio's solo work) grew to epic proportions in my personal sound-world. I soon discovered their work stretched back to the early 90s—which would have been far too cool for a teenage version of me. Sometimes you just have to come things when you are ready. Mika's albums frequently ranked among the best of their year and class. Pan Sonic were my gateway into Suicide's oeuvre—more than Spacemen 3—via their album with Alan Vega, Endless. They worked with people as varied as Merzbow and Charlemagne Palestine. I've listened to Pan Sonic's Kesto repeatedly, which, when you consider it's a whopping 4CD set, is no small compliment.

With news of Mika Vainio's passing, I've been returning to my favorite albums. Surprisingly, all of those (for me) are recorded under the name Ø. This solo project could was just as menacing and intense as his work in-or-out of Pan Sonic, but also nurtured and sustained an utterly unique, crystalline beauty imbued with a meditative sense of patience. I've tried to convert many electronic-averse friends to Vainio's camp with his inspired cover of Pink Floyd's Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

I saw Pan Sonic only once more, in NYC again (this time in much more hospitable environs), headlining a show at the Lower East Side's Tonic club. It was a master class in live sound sculptin. With the simplest of tools, volume and cross-fade, they could turn solid walls of sound into intricate tracks and compelling beats. An oscilloscope was projected on the wall and was a perfect visual accompaniment to this deceptively simple work. I've always said Mika's work does not sound like electronics more than electronica; it's the sound of someone making music out of raw electricity.

History Sifter: Black Unity

Pharoah Sanders is legendary, so it seems odd to discuss him as 'overlooked'. I would argue, though, that his solo career (even its peaks) are overshadowed by his work with both John and Alice Coltrane. His place in the pantheon is eclipsed by the twin pillars of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. In the solar system of free jazz, he is a moon.

Which is a shame, since I personally consider his Black Unity one of the greatest statements of its era. Recorded late in 1971, it's situated shortly after Albert Ayler's passing and well into Miles' fusion expeditions. On it, he seamlessly yolks multiple strains of advanced jazz under one banner—deftly combining both the afro-spiritual and political strains of free jazz with a punchy melody and nearly funky rhythm.

As much this album means to me, I didn't want it on vinyl. Black Unity is a single continuous piece, with such an immersive flow, it seems criminal to interrupt it to flip the record. Perhaps, that fact hurt it when originally released, contributing to it's neglected status—usually taking a back seat even to Sanders' other recordings, like Tauhid or Karma.

Black Unity's ecstatic performances are buttressed by reed drones from North African instruments, lending it an afro-mystical character infused with middle eastern flavors. There is a double rhythm section: Cecil McBee (Pharoah's bassist at the time) is augmented by soon-to-be-fusion-star Stanly Clarke, who's funky vamping turns the proceedings from a protest into a truly wild party.

Somehow, Sanders avoids most of the free jazz, blow-out clichés . Black Unity is not a constant barrage, with everybody wailing, all the time. Neither does it feel like a simple sequence of tag-team soloing. It's episodic, but feels of a whole. It tells a complete story. All the players are dedicated to the spirit of the work. (Compare Black Unity to John Coltrane's Om, where Sanders' and Coltrane's solos are so obviously of a different mind than McCoy Tyner's. It's as if his piano solo were dubbed in from another song.)

Pharoah Sanders has an unassailable and enviable resume: he played with the many of the most pivotal names in jazz history, and is on more than a few landmark records. It's consistently surprises me that Black Unity isn't regularly considered one of them.

Audio Umami: Simon Fisher Turner

Do you have one of those friends? One you love dearly, even though they're (perhaps) borderline aspergers? The kind whose quirks, ticks, impulsive behavior, non-sequiturs and off-color jokes are endearing (only if you know where they're coming from). There's an analogy in there, somewhere, for certain kinds of music. Odd music made by odd fellows. Stuff that's deadly hard to recommend without context, but whose presence makes any stack of records a good sight more interesting.

If you're on the lookout for making your stack of records more interesting, I heartily recommend reading the British music magazine, WIRE. They have long been champions of just this sort of musician for decades, now. It's how I came across a one, Simon Fisher Turner.

Before music on the internet was so universally accessible, many of the artists the WIRE interviewed or reviewed could be devilishly hard to come by. I remember reading an interview with the good Simon around the release of his 1996 record, Schwarma. Their description was so intriguing, I just had to have it. Much to my chagrin, it took two years of searching.

Once I finally had it, I barely knew what to make of it. I listened to it repeatedly, trying to make heads or tails of it. It sounded disguised, or obfuscated. I could barely tell you what instruments played on any given song or how they ended up sounding the way they did, and yet nothing comes off so effects-heavy (like the dream-haze of My Bloody Valentine does). Discontiguous sounds drifted through the mix, never to repeat or return, when other events locked into gangly grooves. There seemed to be a cast of thousands—but in-line, not all-at-once. Even the gender of the voices was hard to discern…

I find it curious now, that the WIRE made no (or at least, only cursory) mention of Turner's wide-ranging (and frankly, confusing) backstory. In the early seventies, he was apparently a TV celebrity in England, and something of a teen heartthrob. He cut a record in 1973—pop tunes, I assume, as I've not heard it. Then the readily available information dries up for about a decade.

He resurfaces in 1982 with Deux Filles. The stories around this band are entirely filled with misdirection and hyperbolic fiction:  one thread has the band ending due to spontaneous combustion. To this day, their press releases—all filled with fallacy—occasionally get repeated as fact. The Filles in question were, in fact, Turner and frequent collaborator Colin Lloyd Tucker, both in drag. After two records, the pair recorded a sonically interesting (but even less available) album as Jeremy's Secret. Later in the 80s, they fell in with the El Records crowd, and Turner masterminded the subversive bubblegum pop of Bad Dream Fancy Dress' Choirboys Gas, as well as recording some records under the name The King of Luxembourg.

These sorts stunts likely captured the attention of maverick filmmaker Derek Jarman. Turner would go on to score many of Jarman's films over the course of a decade, up until the director's passing. More than just writing music for film, his job often involved some level of foley-design, culminating in Jarman's swan-song: Blue. Except for an intense, bright blue screen held for 80 minutes, it is strictly a radio play, shaped by Turner. Working in this manner seems to have instilled in him a love of sound: found-sound, manipulated sound, and non-traditional sound. The vast majority of his work after the Jarman's passing involves some element of carefully sculpted audio collage.

His albums seem to sit outside of any concept of genre. They are electronic but not techno or ambient. They are listenable but not pop—at least not in any way we readily conceive of it. They have vocals but his voice (as carried over from the Deux Filles days) is mannered and strangely androgynous. His albums are easy to overlook or dismiss, solely because they're so uncatagorizable, and our brains need categories to understand things quickly.

Simon Fisher Turner's work has never kept any currency with passing trends, though I wouldn't accuse him of being unaware of the times. The El Records material is like a wacky cousin to the reigning C86 jangle pop of its time. His work in the 90s had at least a few peers and (at time) found itself on compilations with outré electronica artists. Of course, the current moment seems to be an era of genre-defying music. Though I doubt its origin could be traced back to Turner (and his decades-long career flouting boundaries) it does make him uniquely and unexpectedly current.

Of course the perennial contrarian could take solace in the fact that, unlike Turner, this new breed of genre-bending musicians are often scruffy and decidedly lo-fi and retro-futuristic. In such times, high production can often be unfairly mistaken for being over-produced. Turner's pristine, foward leaning sound makes it at odds with the ragamuffins that would be his kin today.

Simon Fisher Turner's tangled story is on par with his confounding music. I've returned to his music over the years, never with less than a sense of wonderment. Perhaps, some of the confusion arises from thinking of him as just a musician when he does not approach his career as such. His work encompasses film, photography, installations and yes, music (and probably more). Furthermore, the music he produces is not unrelated, but fully integrated into these other practices. While it's perfectly fair to assess the record as the discreet object it is, doing so isn't very illuminating without additional context. All this can may make him—especially from an ocean away—harder to get a handle on, even in the age of the internet. It certainly makes his albums, and by extension, your stack of records, more interesting, though.


Now seems more of a time, than ever, to check out Simon Fisher Turner's work. Not only is a nearly unprecedented amount (though, certainly, not all) of it available online for purchase or streaming, he's swung into high gear again. Last year he reconnected with Tucker to reprise the Deux Filles (apparently, rumors of their death were wildly exaggerated) and Editions Mego is set to release a new album by him, Giraffe, in February that I am eagerly anticipating.

History Sifter: Child and Magic

I fully appreciate history's absolute need to reduce movements and entire eras to a sort of short-hand. Popular music is already in danger of suffering from too much history (especially overly reverent remembrances). Still, I think it's important to go back and visit some of the bits the fall through the cracks—not with the intention of adding anything to the canon but simply to remember the full breadth and color of things; to give history a sense of nuance. Not everything has to be remembered, but neither does it have to be completely forgotten.

Nobukazu Takemura remains too peripheral to go down in the annals of electronic music. He'll show up as remixer on the more important techno labels, but most of his material was released in the US by the likes of Thrill Jockey (more known for the indie-rock than electronica). 

On a whim, the other day, I gave  Nobukazu Takemura's Child and Magic a new listen. I quickly found myself overwhelmed, fighting the urge to rush to the internet and declare it a 'lost classic' from my digital hilltop. Of course, it isn't classic in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a rare gem waiting to be rediscovered. Even in its time, it was overlooked and undervalued, but might well be the best album in Takemura's surprisingly diverse career. 

Child and Magic was never available domestically except as an expensive import at specialty shops (which sounds weird to say in the age of amazon, discogs and torrents, but this was a pre-Google 1997). Even though it's out-of-print, it doesn't demand steep prices—it's not collectible, just a curio. Give it some time, though, and it's hard not to notice just how curious it is. 

Takemura's discography runs a wide gamut: from breakbeats to chamber suites; glitch-symphonics to auto-tuned song-cycles of warped lullabies. Somehow, Child and Magic ties it all together; makes everything sound cohesive despite obvious contradictions. The album is technologically advanced but filled with a naive wonder.   

Child and Magic ought to be an utter mess. Even though every style Takemura turns to is fully realized, he'll often switch gears mid-stream. At first blush the only constant is constant change. The more I listen to it, though, the more I feel the presence of a narrative. It's not a concept album, or literal narrative, but a sonic one. The album moves with a symphonic sense of scale and pacing. Takemura's stylistic hairpins might seem sudden and chaotic, but they're carefully placed for specific results.

Our history of the first decade-or-so of electronica has begun to take shape. There's no chance Nobukazu Takemura will be included. He will remain, instead, a treasure of sonic delight to those audio archeologists among us. I can readily imagine, a limited-edition reissue of Child and Magic a decade from now causing a stir with erudite collectors.

fermentation and fruition

A particular brand of liminal music, which I like to call drift pop is… having a moment. You can see it cresting all up-and-down the pop culture ticket. Follow it from the up-and-comers Kaitlyn Aurelia-Smith and Ian William Craig, to the well-established acts like Grouper and Benoît Pioulard, all the way to the old-guard, like Brian Eno. Hell, even Kevin Martin (best known for his ballistic dancehall productions as The Bug), made some drift pop with King Midas Sound, sourcing material from Fennesz. 

What, exactly, is it, though? Drift pop is a particularly gaseous song form, steeped in hazy ambience and unmoored by any conventional rhythm section. There's a heavy emphasis on sound processing and sonic texture. It still features vocals—both traditional and wordless—that (vaguely) resemble pop structures, but they're often lost in a fog of reverb. It's drone music that's learned to sing. Of late, it's been crossed-pollinated with a modular synthesis revival and the North American tape ambient scene, creating a fertile seam of musical pathways.

While it has many roots, it's longest and greatest champion has been Kranky Records. From their very inception, they've pioneered the style—almost as it is known today. In 1994, Kranky's first release was Labradford's Prazision LP—which is so fully formed it feels wrong to label it 'proto'. They were also early champions of Grouper, the styles' first breakout star, earning rave reviews in high profile publications.

Even though it's steeped in our pop culture for a decades now, 2016 feels like the year drift pop went from fringe sub-culture to a fully acknowledged category. The sheer number of albums being produced has spiked dramatically, and plenty of them are getting reviewed and promoted on pretty mainstream sites. The new release lists I follow feature at least one-a-week, lately. Drift pop is competing heavily to dominate my best-of-the-year list. When I go these shows—to my surprise—it's often packed houses.

Which begs the question, why? It's easy to say it's the flavor of the month, but I subscribe to the belief that even our artistic consumption is guided: culture, as a whole, moves for a reason. We look for art to explain the world around us, or to help reflect on and examine ourselves—or to escape all of the above. I find a fractured, lonely beauty in drift pop: yearning voices cut loose in a sea of sound. There's beguiling mystery, getting lost in an ambient fog. Does this appeal more, now, because we are in fact more isolated in our new digital lives? Is it  more aspirational—a refuge and retreat from a world that seems universally intrusive? Does this kind of expression sound more authentic in a space as ambiguous as emotions themselves? 

It's easy to understand one appeal of drift pop to me, personally—so many of it's earliest modern incarnations happened while I was coming-of-age, musically. At first, this recent uptick just seemed like a run of good luck. About the time Brian Eno announced The Ship, it was clear I was just surfing the zeitgeist along with everyone else.

This may be drift pop's moment. While it was here before—and will likely continue—2016 will likely represent some sort of apex. In a few years, pop culture will have moved on and all this will be processed and catalogued—largely shorthanded, remembered and referenced by a few key records. That is the way of things. For now, though, you can drown in the drift pop swells.

strange bedfellows

For whatever reason, I'm drawn to the stranger jazz ensembles. If it's a band entirely of the same instrument, I'm almost certainly on board. I find tantalizing possibilitoes in an all-sax trio like Sonore (Vandermark, Brötzmann and Gustafsson). Small, drumless groups always catch my attention—whether playing in a more traditional mode, like the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio or the modern, à la Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet. Lately, I'm obsessed with duos between saxophones and electronics.

There's a longer tradition to the pairing than one might expect: the earliest example I have is from 1976,  Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum—a duo that is still (periodically) active today. In fact, their 1982 collaboration Open Aspects (Duo) may well have been the first Braxton record I ever bought (a great record, but a poor starting point, as his duos with Tietelbaum are unlike anything else in his oeuvre).

Read any interview with a prog-rock keyboardist, and you'll find plenty of choice words about what wrestling with electronics was like in the 70s. Keyboard technology is still advancing rapidly, today. 40 years ago, they were barely more than barely tempered electricity. Early keyboards seemed like they were held together with chewing gum and twine—patches of wires that had to be connected manually, unstable electronics, sounds playing directly off magnetic tape and pitched by playback speed depending on the key pressed… Getting them to make a noise at all (let alone the noise you wanted) was a challenge. Compound all this with a desire to improvise responsively and you begin to get an idea of just how Silence / Time Zones was far ahead of its time.

By 1997, when Evan Parker and Lawrence Casserley's made Solar Wind, electronics could feature not as a separate instrument, but instead as an invisible sonic funhouse. Casserley manipulates Evan Parker's trademark saxophone squiggles in real-time with effects and processes to make them even more alien than usual. This experiment was so profound, Parker later expanded upon it to a long-running, larger group called the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

While similar ideas had been tried before—Brian Eno running Manzanera's guitar through a modular synth on John Cale's Gun, comes to mind—the technology was really beginning to come of age at the turn of the century. Thanks in part to techno's popularity, the tools and range of possibilities of electronics were expanding exponentially.

This idea, in the context of improvised music, is fraught. While a performer with a score need only carry on—playing what's prescribed them, regardless of the output—improvisors have to make compositional choices in the moment. With this set-up, Parker can't know what the choices he makes will sound like, once Casserley is done with them. He is having a sonic dialogue with a version of himself—one he has only limited control of.

Nowadays, these techniques and tools are far more prevalent in improvised music and I think (rather ironically) many standout improvisors actually use the most rudimentary equipment possible. Toshimaru Nakamura performs on what he calls a 'no-input mixing board'. Quite literally, he takes a small portable mixing deck and wires it to itself, creating feedback which he then manipulates with effects boxes and the simplest tools available: the board's volume, pitch and pan controls. Through singular dedication to this simple tool, he's become an adept, responsive and expressive collaborator.

Dusted Machinery is a recent album finding him in a duo with a European impov titan, John Butcher. Butcher's astounding store of extended techniques, keeps him closely tethered to Nakamura's squeals and rumbles. The delineation between organic and artificial frequently eludes you here.

There is very little more Earthbound than the saxophone. It's been said that—through some mystic combination of the breath, reed, echoing chambers and complex fingerings—the saxophone has the most human expression of any classical instrument. It's why there's more famous jazz saxophonists than any other instrument. Conversely, keyboards and electronics struggle to this day to be fully accepted as valid improvising tools. (The 70s dalliances of fusion jazz didn't help the case.) It's a base-level challenge to create a truly unique voice on a keyboard. Interestingly, even if they have the world of pitch and sound at their fingertips, that may also be a detriment. Limitations can be an amazing wellspring of creativity. If your instrument can make any sound imaginable in any pitch from subsonic to dog-whistle, you may well have too much leeway to operate, artistically.

The exploration of unknown possiblities crossed with restraint are the fundamental elements of these records. With no written material, each duo must quickly define the parameters they are going to work withing to get down to the real business of improvisation: communication. Listening to this most unlikely combination of instruments as they find a shared language is a revelatory window into the very art of the music itself.

do you really want to change?

Oingo Boingo's final bow was a tad ignoble. By 1994, time had passed them by and it was painfully obvious, even to them. With New Wave formally undone by grunge, their style of gothic camp was now strictly verboten. Even though ska-punk was blatantly cribbing Boingo's horn charts, the fucking kids would probably never admit it. The band wasn't helped by the fact that  Danny Elfman (with the able help of guitarist, Steve Avila) was pursuing a much more lucrative career as a soundtrack composer.

By the time Boingo (now sans the Oingo) cut their last studio album, they'd sacked the entire horn section—even though it was such distinctive characteristic of the band. As an album, Boingo fails almost completely. Sure, it's dark and dramatic with a cinematic sweep—but it all feels terribly forced. The lyrics are often pedantic and curmudgeonly. It's cartoonish in ways that never quite work. The album closes with Change: a nearly 16-minute,  multi-part suite of progressive-rock ambition (and this, when 'prog' was a 4-letter word). Not only is it the most adventurous song on the album, surprisingly, it's the only one that feels honest—even genuinely moving.

The first half of the song is nihilistically snarky, arguing the ultimate futility of progress: trying to save the world (or even yourself) will only make matters worse. Later though, the song is more existential and desperately pleading—made more poignant by what preceded it.

Musically, Change starts as a sort of adult contemporary fare, but shifts gears through everything from hard-rock to acoustic psychedlia and symphonics with multi-part harmony. There's a (slightly over-long) skit of a midsection where banal cocktail chatter slowly morphs into monkey screams to the soundtrack of a light string quartet. The near-a-cappella bridge back into the song is beautifully worded and rendered. The entire thing builds up to close on a crescendo.

For an entire album, Elfman & Co. tried to swim with the grunge tide and it was pretty easy to tell they were drowning (not waving). Only when they swam in a new direction did they succeed. Which isn't to say they simply played to their strengths. Change is unlike anything in their catalog. Even if it fits the album it's on, unfortunately—despite its epic scope—the change was still too little, too late. 

crosses bourne

In this age of internet exposition, professional criticism has been drastically devalued. We listen to our friends—and more often than not, just the sound of our own digital voices. The line between critic and random blogger can become hard to discern. Even as one who is (admittedly) muddying those waters as a random blogger, I try to spend some space advocating for the critical profession, proper. The field, at its best, can rise above simple trend-spotting and see value the everyman of the era won't notice. Most of the 'rediscovered' artists in recent memory were preserved for us in time capsules by small cadres of professional writers who believed the world would someday be ready for these sounds.

Kristin Hersh has a unique wrinkle in this conundrum. She is an archetypical cult artist—maintaining a small but deeply devout audience. I've met very few casual Hersh fans—ones who are content with just a couple albums. Those on the outside of this cult seem perplexed by the fandom she inspires. Thankfully, most of the world finds her fans quaint rather than unhinged or obnoxious like juggalos. Of course, that same quaintness can be more than a bit condescending. Kristin, by virtue of being a female songwriter (who spends a portion of her career performing solo, acoustic) is too often relegated to a chick-rock / lilith-fair ghetto. Like being labelled 'World Music', it can then be filed safely way from other more real types of music.

What's worth noting, is the vast majority of professional critics count themselves among the cult of Kristin. It wasn't them who labelled her chick-rock, it was us. If you only read about her, she's a vital and wrongfully overlooked figure in a musical landscape made up of REMs and Pixies. Many of her reviews (even for her latter-day missives) border on hyperbolic. Talk to someone outside her fan base? You'll probably walk away thinking she's just another Tori Amos or Ani DiFranco. Must we pigeon-hole by gender? Do we have such a hard time taking women seriously as musicians? Or have all the scant few slots we set aside for them already taken up by the PJ Harvey's of this world? 

If you need storied histories to suplement to your musical consumption, Hersh has so much to spare she is working on a second memoir to follow her first, Rat Girl. Hailing from the 80s music scene that set the stage for everything we call indie-rock today, she racked up a couple of bonafide minor hits that broke out of college radio and into mainstream airplay.

Thankfully she's persevered—though it doesn't seem it's been at all easy. Recent interviews belie a barely contained disgust for the music industry. Over the years, Kristin has moved her work towards a crowd-funding model. Overall, an interesting development: fans paying directly to finance the recording of a new album. Usually the pot is sweetened with sundry prizes: exclusive deluxe versions of the release, handmade artwork by the band, etc. Of course, this model only works for an artist with a loyal fan base. Wildly popular performers, with ready funding have little need for it. Obscure artists' audiences will be too small (and probably unwilling to pay for a record they probably won't see for months).

While it's certainly a blessing that crowd-funding has kept new records coming from artists as diverse as Juliana Hatfield to the Swans, it's worrying that it might also have a blindspot. It's proven there can be enough of an audience to raise the capital needed, but is that playing to a fan base that will only atrophy over time? They have to win new ears somehow. How do they get their music reported on, seen and ultimately heard by a new audience that could, if won over, sustain them in the future?

This is where the critical community should come in… right? They probably hear these albums and could advocate for crowd-funded works if they wanted to (if their publishers / advertisers allow them to). Is their diminished stature is up to the task? Even if critics shower praise on Kristin Hersh, will you read past the first paragraph? Furthermore, will you go and listen to her music? Nowadays, most of us listen to new music based on what people exactly like us play (via what an algorithm thinks we would enjoy—based on what we already like).

It's not just amateurs like me pissing in critics' pool: part of their dwindling influence is their own doing. There is a truly shitty ratio of professional writers to genuine insight. If you read multiple reviews of the same album, you'll likely begin to see the same phrases repeated, verbatim. Writers sometimes pass off whole portions of an albums' press materials as a review. Or they'll parrot broadly accepted views without challenging or expanding on the party line one bit. It's shoddy critics who built the chick-rock ghetto in the first place. No wonder Kristin can sound so wounded about it.

the saddest music in the world

I can obsess over things for too long. It's like I'm whittling away at it. It was just this way with a song called Kentucky Karaoke, by David Grubbs. After weeks and months of listening to it, I began pushing it on my friends as 'one of the saddest songs I'd ever heard'.

This was a claim often met with perplexed looks. David Grubbs is rarely remembered for his heartfelt songwriting. He's often dismissed as pretentious (at worst) or cerebral (at best). Brainy tendencies seems something people seem more ready to accept in instrumental music. 

The entirety of the lyrics are as follows: 

Here is a prediction:
When you have stories to tell,
You will tell them.

The amount of time I've spent mulling over these three lines—practically a haiku—most likely outweighs the import of their actual intent. For all I know, Grubbs himself may have seen this a simple exercise: a meandering melody on piano fitted to a short, snarky putdown—to add a little levity. His intentions are beside the point, though. These words opened up a channel of thought for me, and those thoughts ran away with me.

The dark, misanthropic places I found myself had little to do with the song as it was. Even still, Kentucky Karaoke was what opened those gates, so I think of the song that way. That's a hell of a lot more than any run-of-the mill, sad sack, woe-is-me, indie-folk song has ever done for me. 

okay, let's fight

Don't take it for granted, just how much I love Lou Reed. We're not only talking about the Velvet Underground—I harbor an aberrant for love albums and songs from across his entire oeuvre. I've had transcendent experiences with Metal Machine Music and am strangely obsessed with Songs for Drella.

Now that's out of the way, I have to tell you: deep down, in the very molten core of my being, I believe there is no single record in Lou Reed's solo discography that can compete with John Cale's Fear. Both founding members of VU, Reed and Cale pushed envelopes throughout their entire careers (and each floundered plenty, along the way). Lou Reed's last studio album was a radical re-imagination of a dark, early 20th century German opera… recorded with Metallica.

Looking across Lou's solo career, there is evocative and explosive work. It can be innovative as it is introspective. He can be enthralling, entertaining and downright self indulgent—sometimes all at once. His catalog is littered with indispensable albums: from Transformer to Berlin to New York. And yet…

Fear is primal. Strangely, it's also so stately, so damned English. It's endlessly catchy as it is fierce as it is atmospheric… Speaking of atmosphere, in the credits, ambient-art-rock whiz-kid Brian Eno is cited only as being his own bad self.

On Fear, John Cale captures the menace of breakdown. He's by turns unhinged and plaintive. Along the way, he even manages to include a song bordering on downright silly. The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy is a perfectly British take on Serge Gainsbourg. It's a call and response duet of a cooing coquette, teasing a pitiable, upright man who must, unfortunately take a miss. Lou rarely managed silly. The only time it really worked for him was early in his career. Sally Can't Dance—incidentally, released the same year as Fear—is only the first of his albums to be ruined by misguided levity.

Fear even shreds. Gun has to be one of the most mind-boggling solos to be laid to wax since the Velvet Underground's I Heard Her Call My Name. Apparently Eno ran Phil Manzanera's guitar through a VCS-3 modular synth, making it sound like the tape is melting while he's trying to record it.

As a whole, Reed's varied, experimental career is probably more important and substantive—even more enjoyable—than Cale's; but John will always have Fear over Lou.

confessions of an archivist

Librarian. Enthusiast. Collector. Hoarder. The lines of distinction between these things can be fuzzy at best. I certainly sit in some nexus between all of them. How can I deny it? I own over 1200 records—even while limiting my vinyl collection to one-per-artist. The real crazy comes through in my digital catalog.

I am 100% certain I have things in my cloud of mp3's I have never listened to. I have every intention of getting to them, believe me. I listen to a shit ton of music. My day job lets me keep my headphones on, all-the-livelong day, but there are simply times when my rate of acquisition outpaces the sheer time it takes to listen—even once—to everything. Things are bound to fall through the cracks.

Pavement Brain Candy

If I'm honest, though, listening isn't the only point of my collecting—which is sort of weird to say. What's the point of buying music if not to listen to it?

I've come to find sorting and filing music has become an ancillary hobby unto itself. I sincerely find it fun simply pawing through my collection. I make sure it has the best quality cover images, individual songs on compilations have the proper date stamped on them, and that bands with unruly discographies are sorted, good and proper.

There is some purpose to this—beyond just dicking around in my pile of music. It's proven useful in understanding the chronology things. In our era of reissues and bonus tracks, I'm now obsessed with separating the album—as it was originally conceived and released—from the odds and sods. It gives me a more accurate image of the artists. You'd have a very different concept of the Beatles if you listened to the band's albums in order than if you slogged through all three double-CD Anthology sets from the mid-90s. Of course, being who I am, I want to listen to the wheat and the chaff, but I prefer to be keenly aware of which is which.

A weird side effect of this habit is I haven't truly dug into certain artists yet, expressly because their discographies are hopelessly muddled. Elvis, for one. You'd think a self-proclaimed music snob like myself would be well-steeped in the king of rock-n-roll; but, no. Sure, I've heard plenty, but not dived into his catalog with any zeal—as I haven't yet managed to get the whole of it into any order that makes a lick of sense to my chronology-obsessed mind.

Conversely, some bands I was deep into when before this sickness set in are now borderline obsessions. It's a full-time fucking job trying to make heads-or-tails of the Fall's discography, but I like to think I've done about as good a job of it as any US-based fan could aspire to.

I feel I must defensively note here: I've listened to every piece of vinyl under my roof. There's no point in cluttering your life with a physical object if you don't use it. In fact, I have an official policy that no record is filed (alphabetically—regardless of genre) until it has been played twice.

So, if you've ever caught a glimpse of my collection, and wondered to yourself, "Has he listened to all of that?" The short answer is: no. The long answer is: no, but lord-willing, I fully intend to—but without even hearing it, I can tell you where it belongs.

the trouble with classicists

Let's start with this premise: there's a difference between being prescient and being a progenitor. Neither necessarily sees the future, but both—consciously, or unconsciously—represent what is to come. The real difference is the progenitor can be said to have actively made that future come about. Someone who is prescient is merely serendipitous. Velvet Underground were progenitors. Camper van Beethoven (and by some extension Cracker)—who I'd like to talk about, a bit, here—were prescient.

To say, 'merely' is a disservice, the pejorative equivalent of being ahead of your time. Camper van did—and still does—sound like nothing else out there, really. So what were they prescient of? In retrospect, their omnivorous absorption of musical history certainly seems truly ahead of its time.

Camper van Beethoven blended underground rock, ska and even dashes of Eastern European folk—occasionally in waltz time—to find an original voice. Sure, there was already punk proper (the screamy kind) and the nascent forms of much-more-straight-ahead indie rock (read: Replacements and REM), but in the college rock cafeteria, CvB had to eat at the freaks table; looked at askance even by the people others called weirdos. Fast forward to 1994, when Beck drops Mellow Gold and the Beastie Boys are peddling rap stew spiked with punk rock and vintage funk workouts and suddenly Camper van make perfect sense.

The closest thing they had to a hit was actually a cover of the august psychedelic chestnut, Pictures of Matchstick Men, which took off while the Pixies were just beginning to make ripples on the scene. Let's take a minute to also appreciate just how weird that hit really was. They unearthed a long-forgotten single you would expect find on the Nuggets collection of 60s garage rock. Even if that song was on Nuggets (it wasn't), that set wasn't reissued on CD until a decade after Key Lime Pie. The idea of espousing your love of obscure ephemera was not nearly such a thing as now, in the post-LCD Soundsystem new millennium.

By the early 90s—when everything was sounding distinctly more eclectic—Camper Van Beethoven had already ended. From their ashes, rose Cracker. As an avid fan of the former, the latter took me aback. Gone were the über-hyphenated genre mashups and in it's place was what could only be described as roots rock. Sure, roots rock with one hell of a sarcastic, snarky frontman, but this rawk was oddly primal. I came around quickly. It was too well done, too fun to resist, and (in a peculiar way) this realignment has proven prescient in its own right. It seems just as the alternative rock world was catching up to Camper van, Cracker was busy predicting ten years hence.

I came to this thought, as I was contemplating what a good run of just stone-cold classic sounding albums some of my favorite indie rock bands from the 90s were producing. From Superchunk to Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth to Mary Timony's Ex Hex: all producing music that sounded not just classic in quality but more capital-c Classic, in tone and color. These bands were giving the young-un's a course in Rock 101. Echoes of everything from the Stones to the Cars to Grateful Dead could be heard in it.

So we return to progenitor vs prescient. Did Camper van Beethoven spawn the voracious genre-hopping of the 90s? I think it's pretty safe to say: No. They were a niche, or even the niche of a niche. There are certainly plenty more prevailing forces, both market and cultural, that can explain that phenomenon. Did Cracker lay the seeds for the current fashion of indie-rockers returning to the epicenter of rock and pop? Even though Cracker was far more commercially successful than CvB, still the answer is: No. The grunge era hasn't been fully re-appreciated yet. Cracker hits are the sort still sneered at by the cognoscenti—at best, it's a guilty pleasure, thought of as a nostalgic throwback.

Perhaps though, we should give Cracker a second thought. Even if you're not influential enough to be a progenitor, being that prescient twice in one career is no mean feat.

hibernation listening

For some, unknown reason, I find myself compelled to to binge-listen in the dark cold of February. Some album will call to me, and I'll find myself listening to it almost daily for a month (or more). I've tried, in the last few years to steer that desire towards something new, or under-appreciated in my collection—in a valiant attempt to avoid purely nostalgic comfort-listening.

2016 is the year I make peace with PJ Harvey's White Chalk. This LP has been a line in the sand for me (if you'll pardon the pun). I was deeply vested in Harvey's career up to this point, but just sort of lost the thread at Chalk, I've not paid much attention to what came after it, or best, half-heartedly tried to reconnect.

It's worth noting, I never really faulted Harvey's muse nor would ever claim White Chalk, or the albums since, were bad. They just… failed to connect with something inside me. Beyond the fact that I have an inherent faith in PJ Harvey as an artist, critical acclaim continued to pour in. I wasn't alone per se, it seems to be a divisive album among her fans, but I felt on the wrong side of history.

I was perhaps a tad afraid of being uncharitable. I've often argued that we give far more artistic leeway to male singers and pop stars than we do female. Women are expected to be catchy, attractive and sing nice-n-purdy. It would seem doubly offensive to not extend equal open-mindedness to a women who burst into our collective consciousness with such an openly feminist howl. She took a stylistic detour, let's see where it leads. Rather than leapfrogging over the problem album, I'm going to solve the problem. White Chalk: it's you and me, all winter long.

losses, both public and personal

I have no proper standing to write a tribute to David Bowie. I'm not an artist nor critic and (of course) I didn't know him personally.

As a fan, I was born well after his debut, and his best work was behind him before I had object permanence. All the same, I came to him later still. It didn't help that my introduction was *shudder* Labyrinth. The first Bowie song I actually liked was Golden Years. It was in some overlong, made-for-TV Stephen King movie, but it inspired me to pick up a used cassette copy of the hits-compilation, Changes.

After that, he resurfaced with Tin Machine—who get no love to this day. Let's face facts, though: flawed as they were, Tin Machine pulled Bowie out of a creative nose-dive. All the interesting work he did in his 90s-era career resurgence was with Reeves Gabrels from the Machine. More salient to my personal history, Tin Machine baptized me—I was a born again David Bowie fanatic.

Since my indoctrination, I've steeped myself in his work. In 1999, Bowie re-remastered his catalog, issuing it all without the bonus tracks Rykodisc had included in previous editions. My friends and I then put our own box set together, compiling all that missing extra material together in one place—and then continued on to include more recent b-sides and live material to create a complete and up-to-date, alternate-universe portrait of Bowie. We spent months on it—designs, levels, track order, obtaining obscure bits we were missing. I even made a custom re-edit of the I'm Afraid of Americans remixes. In all my collecting, I've never taken on a project quite like it.

In the post-everything, indie-rock world at the turn of the century, Bowie has graduated to being as much a forgone conclusion as the Beatles. There is no question of quality or importance, just discussions over which Bowie was your favorite—conversations I've had countless times. I've talked through contradicting explanations of his career highlights and lowlights. Being such a completist, I've always cherished what I thought were under-appreciated corners of his catalog: from Pin-Ups and deep album cuts or b-sides from the 70s to Tin Machine or Earthling and Hours in the 90s.

Of his recent output—the two albums he put out after a decade of silence—I was initially disappointed by The Next Day, thinking Bowie was playing it too safe. With the much more experimental follow-up, Blackstar (and now, his death), I look back at it differently. It's as if Bowie proved he could give us what we wanted and expected of him; that he could age gracefully. Then he decided to say, "Naw, fuck that." Of late, Bowie seemed to be having the same conversations about his work we were: trying to make some form of sense from the messy whole of his career.

What's funny, is it doesn't feel as if I put as much stake in his iconography as others seem to. Even though a good portion of his work is, in essence, himself, Bowie matters to me for what he put down. He has proven time and again that pop music can be artful, and a practice of 'capital-a' Art. Stars don't have to age into irrelevance—that is, if they keep striving. They may fail, Bowie often did, but he failed by trying. I'll take a misguided mess of aspiration over a flaccid, lukewarm walk-through any day. Bowie will never be remembered for his mistakes—he's big enough, they'll never go away completely (nor should they), but his successes will tower over them with ever-greater import in the coming decades.

Still, this morning, after I read the news so rudely displayed on my phone's home-screen as the alarm went off, I found myself tearing up. What a way to wake the fuck up, "Beep! Beep! One of your heroes is dead!" Given my arm's-length distance from his persona, I felt weird for crying. So I made some bad jokes, "I guess they'll have to scrap their plans for Labyrinth II, now" or, "Funny that a gender-bending, transgressive icon died, aged 69" (da-duh-duh). Then I felt sort of callous for joking about it. The sadness was honest. Even if I only took what he put to wax, I was deeply vested in the story of that creative output, the arc of his art over time. As universal and public as that loss is, the sting of it feels very personal.

Today, I'm listening to his entire discography. All of it. The good, the bad, the mistakes and the works of unadulterated genius. I'm listening with the new perspective that the tale it's telling is suddenly complete.