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Boo! Hello!


Given the fact that they’re signed to In the Red, The Hunches should be easy enough to pigeonhole, but on last year’s Hobo Sunrise, the sounds aren’t always coming from the garage. I can hear equal doses of new wave and indie rock, through a speaker screely: this is where the label affiliation comes into play, letting loose wraiths of white noise and scraping high frequency threshholds. Somewhere in the static, there’s a dark pop heart beating. I think that when they let the hooks coalesce into recognizable pop songs, like on “Droning Fades On” or “Two Ghosts,” they’re most successful, though also susceptible to lazy Archers of Loaf comparisons. Towards the end of the album they put forth their most propulsive rocker, “Frustration Rocket,” complete with fist-pumping rallying cry (“It’s hard when you’re so young!”), but instead of going out with a bang, they choose to close with “A Flower in the Ending,” which evokes the Pixies better than bands who’ve devoted their entire careers to the practice.

ROKY ERICKSON If You Have Ghosts

Recorded during Erickson’s post-breakdown, post-cred major label days, “If You Have Ghosts” is as good a song as any to represent the cartoony/scary Halloween formula. The sound is 80’s hard rock; the production, dinky (and so more acceptable to indie-trained ears). The psychedelic sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators are pretty well out of the mix, though the strange pinging sound the engineer puts on the guitar might count for something. For all the bluster the band puts up, there’s a palpable sense of disconnect between Erickson and his backing. It just makes his ghost story, seesawing as it does between bloody-minded imagery and poetic turns of phrase, even spookier. Coherence is a little much to ask from his narratives, but there are plenty of lines left deliciously open, beginning with the chorus, “If you have ghosts/Then you have everything.” Then there’s the incantation that he runs through really quickly, “The moon to the left of me is a part of me, is me/Forever is the wind, is a part of my thoughts, is a part of me, is me” which looks pretty intriguing written out; as sung, its complex structure’s obscured by a ranting delivery.

The going assumption is that cheap horror flicks now serve as Erickson’s muse, and lingering mental illness has almost totally obscured the guru. It’s hard to argue either way on this. As John Darnielle pointed out in his liners for the institution-recorded Never Say Goodbye, “Great poems have always been about trying to scare you out of your pants.” The haunted house he explores could just as easily be a haunted head; either way, a lonely road to tread. The wasteland of dissociative disorder could find its metaphor in sympathy for the ghost (“In the night, I am real”). But hell, even in the Elevators he sounded tortured by unseen forces; remember the blood-curdling shrieks in “Roller Coaster”. The previously-espoused mysticism wasn’t all Tommy Hall putting words in his mouth; in the chorus of his most famous composition, an accusatory “You didn’t realize” -- by dint of repetition made to sound like a call to mindfulness -- pointedly receives emphasis over the payoff, “You’re gonna miss me”.


Murder, Incorporated


The Murder of Lewis Tollani

One of the more neglected 60'’s UK pop bands, Kaleidoscope put out one great album, Tangerine Dream, before dirtying their hands with prog on their second LP, Faintly Blowing. A dramatic, grandiose showcase, that material has not aged as well as their ebullient psych-pop origins. Overshadowed in their time, the band splintered and reformed as Fairfield Parlour, which suffered the ignominy of not having their best album released until twenty years after their breakup. Screwed over by a hit-seeking label, it's doubly disappointing to see them denied from charting singles off Tangerine Dream. They had energy, a strong vocalist, and an inventive but raw approach to instrumentation. They deftly avoided the plague of twee with a dark sensibility that comes to the fore on this track. On "The Murder of Lewis Tollani," there's a definite hint of fall in the air, a chill wind rusting the leaves, someone on somebody'’s heels in the night. It'’s deliciously creepy the way singer Peter Daltry stumbles over his words, making his appeal to innocence not at all convincing. It's only a matter of time before someone'll stick a song on a soundtrack (paging Wes Anderson) and the reissue campaign will begin in earnest. Until then, Dive Into Yesterday contains most of their recorded output (and all of Tangerine Dream but two tracks); but for that you'll have to get your import on.


Murder Mystery

I have given up trying to read the face of the hip hop times; online, it isn't too hard to find incidental images of the game. Just know that Boston, like most American metropolis in 2005, has a vibrant hip-hop scene. Mr. Lif has the highest profile, with product on the critically-acclaimed Def Jux imprint. Edan's latest, Beauty and the Beat, mixes old-school rapping with even older-school psych-pop sampling. I can't say he comes off an Elephant 6 rapper (shudder at the thought), but the backing tracks do pleasantly dislocate the proceedings, going easy on the standard sources to unearth some still-potent faerie dust. Edan gets enough of a whiff to spin out some serious daydreams, travelling the spaceways like Kool Keith on "Promised Land." For "Murder Mystery," though, the focus is on the street. It's pretty much one straight verse, with spooky sound effects and striking tape-effected feedback, with some big band horns thrown in for effect. The story eschews narrative arc and gives the lie to the entitled mystery. Any aspiring gumshoe would get quickly lost in this maze. There are some cinematic, evocative lyrics -- "The chauffeur in the van with the globe in his hand" -- leading to less clear impressionism -- "The author was typing / The water was icy" -- to simple declaratory -- "“His father'’s name was Michael / He shot him with a rifle."” The mystery is less whodunit than framing a random sequence of events, with shadowy characters and even less coherent motivation. The flow ends when it hits its target, gang affiliation given credence to the cause. The apparent senselessness of the crime is treated as just another fact in the recurrent violence of modern urban reality. Who did it doesn't solve anything, providing no good answer to the bigger questions that loom. Crime goes on; the forces involved are bigger than the individuals in thrall to it. Unconscious society cannot speak to this, except to move on to the next case -- the next track -- in a search for the satisfying click of an easy solution. Edan's brief attempt at holding up a mirror reveals fragments shattering edges, reforming into new wholes, broken apart as the world turns, a kaleidoscopic vision of a world on the brink.


The Real New Tall

Sign the Dotted Line
Life Is Strange

David Bowie quipped that only 100 people bought The Velvet Underground and Nico when it was originally released, but every one of them started a band. The same event must have been duplicated some years later in New Zealand. Aside from some elusive, creativity-fostering element in the water table, it remains an open question as to how a vibrant pop underground took foothold in that breakaway republic. Local radio loved catering to middling Australian tastes, and NZ didn’t possess the press-fed frenzy of the British scene. There were universities where the like-minded could meet, and a few record stores to score product, but distro on the other side of the world was less than ideal -- case in point, there were no Joy Division records available until after Ian Curtis’ suicide. New Zealand pop stands, then, as another example of how widespread indifference paradoxically inspires winning performances from of the unlikeliest contenders.

Warm, intimate, and often cracked, the music fostered by the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels churned out an impressive body of work in the 80’s, the quality of which often transcends its continued obscurity. The kiwi contingent labored over their home recordings, keeping an eye on both economy and artistry, adding just the right amount of scuzz and sneer to acknowledge punk rock’s paradigm shift. Years before Pavement and Guided By Voices deconstructed pop songs in their hovels, the New Zealand underground produced the same results with surprising consistency. The Clean got the first local hit, but still never made it beyond critical nods and a small fanbase stateside. They had their brief revival a few years ago when Merge threw together two CDs’ worth of back catalogue highlights as Anthology, garnering college radio attention and inspiring a US tour. These days posthumous acclaim spreads as fast as a couple of mouse clicks. Cloud Recordings aims to reproduce that reissue's success for the Tall Dwarfs, this month reissuing their first two LPs, Weeville and Fork Songs.

Tall Dwarfs started in ’81, the same year as Flying Nun, and were comprised of two members from the New Wave band Toy Love, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate. They recorded everything at home on TEAC four track and put together their own record covers and promotional materials. Guitars, some drum sticks (if not actual drums), and a Casiotone are all they needed to string together melody and lyric into pop songs, sneering satire, and genre-stretching experiments.

-- Here are the young men. The picture suggests the mien of Tall Dwarfs to be variously uncomfortable, defiant, self-aware, and oblivious. Bathgate looks like Lance Armstrong fielding testicle questions from hostile French sportswriters. To his right stands Knox, looking unamused for once. He usually resembles Richard D. James' older brother (see: the photo at the beginning of this post). Here, he seems to want to evoke Lemmy, and not merely ape him, as so many others have. Like Knox’s music, the ‘stache idiosyncratically conjures something from the storebin of cultural awareness, made even more estranged from its already marginal source.

The Tall Dwarfs had been plying their trade in EPs until 1990, when the Weeville LP was released. Given that background, the odds-and-sods nature of the album’s flow is understandable. As an example of this kind of dichotomy, “The Winner” weds Superchunk pogo to a string of nasty putdowns, culminating in one of the Dwarfs goading the listener into a barfight over the song's fade. This is followed by “Rorschach,” an oddly affecting ballad of delicate guitar and creeped-out keyboards. The track offered above, “Sign the Dotted Line,” is an anthem for the year punk broke, when the nascent indie rock met mainstream and only a few got a lasting deal (Sonic Youth comes to mind as faring the best). The lyrics seem to presage the indie rock era perfectly, constant considerations undercutting any buoyancy that threatens to raise their spirits. Underachievers, attack at your leisure.

Giving themselves a year to think about it, the Dwarfs returned in ’91 with their second LP, Fork Songs. The first song, “Dare to Tread,” gets down to business immediately, laying out the band’s blueprint in its four and a half minutes: jaunty rhythm guitar, anthemic riffs recorded flat, arch lyrics, and cardboard box drumming. Fourteen variations on the theme later, the shrugging closer "Think Small" engages in some quiet defeatism, catchy for all its ineffectual sullenness. In between the Dwarfs splatter their canvas with everything heard on Weeville, refined slightly with another year’s maturity; cheesy percussion loops are mixed lower, guitarwork is more tasteful, the balance between anger and resignation tipping decidedly toward the latter. In general the two sound more comfortable with their limitations, at points flat-out mellow. “We Bleed Love” is from head to toe verifiably a Dump song -- one can easily imagine James McNew hunched over his Hello Kitty boombox, trying to figure out the chords. The appended Dogma EP predates Weeville by two years, and is decidedly more ramshackle, kicking things off with a spoken word piece and utilizing more found sounds and tape pastichery. The centerpiece is "The Slide," a slow burner of zinging, pro-euthanasia couplets (summing with the droll assessment, "The doctor should kill / She's terminally ill"). The most successful gambit is "Dog"'s funk-spazz-pop, multi-tracking allowing the Dwarfs to come across as a no-budget Talking Heads.

“Life Is Strange” shares a similar approach with “Dotted Line,” in that both songs share the same gradual enfolding of electric guitar heroism for maximum – minimalist – impact (Guided By Voices used this trick endlessly during their basement years). “Life” is more straightforward rocker, but with chintzy percussion and no low end to speak of, its demo-sized effect is considerably less than suggested. That’s all part of their charm, though, the Tall Dwarfs living up, and down, to their name.

[Weeville and Fork Songs are out October 25th on
Cloud Recordings.]


Various Positions

THE SKYGREEN LEOPARDS Minotaur (Burn A Candle For Love)

The Skygreen Leopards, a Californian duo of Donovan Quinn and Glenn Donaldson, take their name, and a good deal of inspiration, from mid-20th C. American poet Kenneth Patchen. "Because where they planted skygreen leopards grew": hard to believe, but listening to them, the fantastic is almost believable. The music's crisp and clear, twangs like folk, and is sung fey. It’s both charming and charmed, as intimate as a campfire singalong, and yet joyfully acknowledges the life in the open around it. The Leopards wrote this album in a seacoast cabin, an affect reminiscent of another California poet, Robinson Jeffers (though it was a rental, and probably did not look as cool as Jeffers’ tor). The arrangements are offhand, and considering their background in improv, sound assured in their breeziness. According to Donaldson, composing in Skygreen works something like this: "Donovan Quinn & I sit around & drink coffee & talk about Kenneth Patchen or debate the merits of Bob Dylan’s various phases, then we 'write' songs." Still, it would be easy to pin the twee tag on these sunlit explorations were it not for the clouds that gather. Like Patchen, a deep dissatisfaction erupts from the menagerie -- one gets the sense that they were not born in the countryside, but have retreated there.

Patchen viewed the world of man as misruled to the point of catastrophe. His poetry uses nature images to evoke the sense of refuge in an inhuman, incorruptible, space. "Minotaur" (from this year’s Life & Love In Sparrow’s Meadow on Jagjaguwar) pulls the verdant curtain aside to view the inner shadow. It's a song about monstrous behavior leading to a lostness, and the ensuent hope for transcendence: "Oh, to be a prairie bird." As the woodland processional marches out, variations on the refrain, "This is the message that your minotaur brings" are repeated, while another voice insists, "Burn a candle for love." There's a meaning at work here that avoids easy solutions, a small hope amid the backsliding of society's progress -- Patchen would be proud.

[The Jehovah Surrender EP will be released later this month. It sounds as if the band has moved, perhaps only temporarily, from the shed to the garage, having added distorted guitar, fuzz bass, and what sounds like an actual drum kit. The change aligns them more closely with the popular sound of Nuggets et al. You can read the fanciful account of the events behind the recording here.]


One of the first San Francisco bands to stir up the 60’s scene, Quicksilver Messenger Service suffered more than most from extenuating circumstances. They initially spurned label money, but found room remaining on the bandwagon two years later, having fully cemented their reputation on the West Coast as a live act. A drug bust had already sidelined singer Dino Valente, who would not rejoin the band until 1970. Upon his release, he recorded a self-titled solo album, a hermetically sealed period piece that cast himself as a humble sage who gently directs young women down the path of right intention (that ends in his bed). He apparently was kinda like this offstage, too. "Overpowering and indulgent" reads one online assessment, and even his own producer, Bob Johnston, acknowledges that "people thought that he was evil."

QMS did pretty well without him, recording several albums, gaining some notoreity, and playing Monterey. Valente rejoined just as the whole West Coast pop experiment came crashing to halt; the hippie dream gave way to drug nightmare, and harsh 70’s reality commenced in earnest. From the dual-guitar jam attack for which they were known, Valente brought down the fans by loading QMS’ fourth LP with his fussily cosmic ballads; "Just For Love" is the title track. Arthur Levy notes that every song on Dino Valente is directed towards a "you," and the approach is no different here. The song sounds pleasant enough; it’s definitely an easier listen than the strained harmonies (both musically and lyrically) of Valente’s solo record. It resonates well in ’05 with its similarity to Forever Changes’ stately arrangements. Tasteful piano flourishes, pageantal drumrolls, a troubadour's guitar line -- over and above the assembly soars Valente, sounding like Roky Erickson emulating "Song to the Siren" above the demon static. There’s a certain trippy swagger up and down the verses, a "kaleidoscopic dimension of simpatico" (to quote Arthur Levy’s Dino Valente liners) that, for all its ridiculousness, still manages to intrigue.