Wednesday, March 24, 2010

indie postpunk pre-postrock: BITCH MAGNET

There have been three bands, or rather, two basic bands and another band that evolved from one of the basic bands, that I haven't been able to stop listening to for the past week or so.

So why not blog one of them? This week's particular band was on my future "I should probably blog these guys" list, but as is the case with most of my postings, bands move up and down the schedule - or are completely unplanned until I sit down to write the entry - with reckless abandon.

So, seeing as how last week we featured Slint, this week I chose one of Slint's compatriot bands, the North Carolina (by way of Oberlin College, Ohio) postrock pseudohardcore proto-math-rock combo Bitch Magnet. Slint and Bitch Magnet are related by band interbreeding, if you will: Slint's root band Squirrel Bait bequeathed Slint's Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, and that same band also bequeathed free agent guitarist David Grubbs, who played with Bitch Magnet for a duration.

But besides a terrific appreciation for dynamics, that's about the end of the similarities (though Slint's Tweez can be a good starting comparison point with Bitch Magnet in terms of dynamics, and raw sound). While a fan of Bitch Magnet will probably also enjoy Slint, fans of Slint's later material (i.e. Spiderland) may not appreciate the getting-away-from-hardcore basics underlying Bitch Magnet.

And besides, Bitch Magnet featured one of the BEST drummers ever in the annals of 1980s/1990s indierock, Orestes Delatorre (aka Orestes Morfin). The only comparison I can think of for Orestes's amazing drumming is Scratch Acid and Rapeman drummer Rey Washam - widely thought of as one of the greatest indierock drummers EVER. Orestes is absolutely up there with Rey: one of the best drummers I've ever heard, and criminally underrated amongst those who should know better (Pitchfork, I'm looking at you). There are transcendent moments all over the place with Orestes's drumming, touches such as the recurring "ting ting ting ting" of his bell-like ride cymbal slay me every time.

The only consistent Bitch Magnet members were Sooyoung Park (vocals, bass), Jon Fine (guitars), and Orestes (drums). Guitarist David Galt joined the band for their first full-length - 1989's Umber, and David Grubbs played on one track on 1990's Ben Hur. Galt did not play on Ben Hur.

Bitch Magnet's oeuvre was rather limited, with mainstream releases consisting of just a brief EP (1988's Star Booty) and the two previously-mentioned full-length albums. The band also released a few 7" and 12" singles, but those are VERY hard to find and I personally have never heard them.

Bitch Magnet broke up for unknown reasons following Ben Hur, with members going on to found Seam (Sooyoung Park), remaining in Bastro (David Grubbs), or disappear from the scene entirely (Orestes - though he did join Minnesota's Walt Mink for a brief spell in the mid 90s).

Star Booty, their 1988 debut EP, was engineered (or only mixed, the Internets are not clear on the details) by Steve Albini and I have to be honest here: it's really crap sounding. I wonder if the record label screwed something up in the mastering for release, because I'm really surprised such product passed Albini's legendary no-bullshit quality control. Granted I've not heard this on original vinyl, only the CD version - it's entirely possible the vinyl version sounds spectacular ;) The music is OK - I do like the proto-Seam melodicism of "Sea of Pearls", and "Hatpins" is a nice blast of 1980s hardcore, but overall this EP isn't what made me a Bitch Magnet fan. The songs eventually blur into a samey miasma that, while noisy, does seem lacking. (This EP was appended to the CD release of the following LP by their record label.)

Umber, the band's 1989 LP produced by Mike McMackin, is what made me a fan. I simply love this record. From wigout opener "Motor" to the understated beauty of the closer "Americruiser", the full 10-song set grabs you by the proverbial balls and never lets go. I hear audio references to Big Black and Scratch Acid (Austin, TX mid-1980s punk and Jesus Lizard ancestor) all over the place. "Navajo Ace" is a BLISTERING punk workout with some utterly jaw-dropping drumming courtesy Orestes. The languid soft/loud/soft dynamic beauty of "Clay" - another proto-Seam track - leads nicely into the very-Scratch Acid "Joan of Arc". Then we get an amazing quieter number "Douglas Leader", the first 2:30 or so consisting only of Sooyoung's gently-melodic bass and spoke/sung vocals. Orestes comes in with a nice touch in restrained drums, and finally we hear guitars washing over the track with icy-cold feedback. A standout. Then we have a few more brilliant post-punk mini-epics in a row, all with amazing drums and noisy guitars, and finally bring matters to a close with the stunningly beautiful "Americruiser". I can listen to this song on repeat all day, the gentle verses leading into the swelling choruses is so Seam-like it's ridiculous (and wonderful). And I have no idea what Sooyoung's vocals are about, though the musical phrase from his last vocal "sure could use a good place to sleep" leading into the overwhelming chorus of guitars and drums is spectacular. Yeah it sounds like Slint - but remember, this was before Slint's own take on this same style.

Overall rating? Almost 10 fucking stars.

1990 saw the band add Bastro's David Grubbs to replace the departing David Galt for one track (after touring with the band in 1989), and released the swan song LP Ben Hur (track 2 recorded by Howie Gano; tracks 4 and 8 recorded by McMackin; and tracks 1, 3, 5 and 7 by "Arden Geist" - which I suspect to be an Albini pseudonym, because 1) there is zero biographical, or anything for that matter, information on "Arden Geist" on the Internet besides mention of these particular BM tracks, and 2) the tracks bear every single hallmark of an Albini recording). While more a refinement of, than a dizzying progression from, the sound established with Umber, Ben Hur shows the band increasingly exploring a more textured side of their music: "Dragoon" is a nearly 10-minute epic beginning with feedback-laden guitar and Orestes' simple ride cymbal tings, before exploding into a melody-laced all-out assault of guitars, frenzied drumming and barely-audible spoken word vocals. "Valmead" (featuring a pseudonymous Grubbs as "Shannon Doughton") and "Gator" are instrumentals, "Valmead" exploring dissonance while "Gator" returns to Umber's pummelling in-your-face guitar and drum workouts. "Mesentery" is brilliant, while "Ducks and Drakes" and the amazing, beautiful closing track "Crescent" foreshadow Sooyoung's future Seam project: in fact "Crescent" could easily fit on either of Seam's first two LPs and nobody would bat an eye.

Overall rating? Not quite as strong as Umber, so almost 8 fucking stars. I wish the band explored more of the Seam/Slint textures they explored briefly on Umber, and touched on a bit here, and there are no absolute stunners (to me) on this record (as opposed to Umber, which features several), but this is still a fine, fine record the likes of which is almost never seen today.

I present all three records described above, slightly remastered for your listening pleasure, in glorious lossless FLAC. I really attempted to fix up Star Booty but essentially it's helpless, someone needs to revisit that from the original master reel.

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remastered from redbook CD by

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STAR BOOTY (1988, Communion Records)
Recorded by - or only mixed by, it's unclear - Steve Albini

01 Carnation
02 C Word
03 Sea of Pearls
04 Hatpins
05 Knucklehead
06 Circle K
07 Polio
08 Cantaloupe

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UMBER (1989, Communion Records)
Recorded by Mike McMackin

01 Motor
02 Navajo Ace
03 Clay
04 Joan of Arc
05 Douglas Leader
06 Goat-Legged Country God
07 Big Pining
08 Joyless Street
09 Punch and Judy
10 Americruiser

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BEN HUR (1990, Communion Records)
1/3/5/7 recorded by "Arden Geist" (Albini)

2 recorded by Howie Gano
4/8 recorded by Mike McMackin

01 Dragoon
02 Valmead
03 Ducks and Drakes
04 Mesentery
05 Lookin' At The Devil
06 Gator
07 Spite y Malice
08 Crescent

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edit #2: removed link.  Watch for official deluxe reissues!

edit: some factual updates thanks to Fred in the comments...


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

life-changing records: SLINT

Some time back we briefly touched base on that absurdly-named Math Rock genre of postpunk indierock. Angular guitars, intricately-woven webs of sound, etc. Spoken, not sung, vocals, more often than not.

Today we feature perhaps the Ground Zero band of Math Rock, the mythical, majestic Slint. One can say that Slint is my generation's Velvet Underground - not many of us bought the record(s) when they came out, but those who did, formed bands. What they did was unlike anything that had come before, and better than the imitators who followed.

I won't waste energy rehashing the band's history (it's all over the Internets, though the best pieces are here, here, here and here), that their first, strange, odd noiseblast of an LP Tweez was an early Steve Albini recording (from 1987, well before he made his name as a highly-sought recording engineer), that their second full-length, Spiderland, was NOT recorded by Steve but received "ten fucking stars" from him in a Melody Maker review, and that after their breakup the true bridge piece between the two LPs, a two-song set recorded by Steve between Tweez and Spiderland, was released in 1994 to a collective "sigh" (as to what the world was missing with the breakup of the band).

I just won't. Rather, go to Wikipedia and follow the links, there is a fantastic entry for Spiderland contained within.

I once read on another blog that Spiderland is a true life-changing record, as opposed to a "soundtrack to my life"-type record. That guy was spot-on: once I heard Spiderland (way back in 1991, fools!) my entire window to the world of music changed. All you have to do is immerse yourself into the sonic panorama that is "Washer", or the closing cathartic torment of "Good Morning, Captain", or the subdued, apprehensive "For Dinner..." to experience it.

Albini's remarkably prescient 1991 review, as originally penned for Melody Maker, is reproduced in its entirety here:

Since about 1980, America has been host to an ever-increasing parasitic infestation of rock bands of ever-dwindling originality. It seems there is no one left on the continent with an aspiration to play guitar that hasn't formed a band and released a record. And that record sounds a little bit like Dinosaur Jr.

Trust me on this; all but maybe three of those records are pure bullshit.

My primary association with rock music is that I am a fan of it, though listening to the aforementioned nearly killed that. In its best state, rock music invigorates me, changes my mood, triggers introspection or envelopes me with sheer sound. Spiderland does all those things, simultaneously and in turns, more than any records I can think of in five years.

Spiderland is, unfortunately, Slint's swansong, the band having succumbed to the internal pressures which eventually punctuate all bands' biographies. It's an amazing record though, and no one still capable of being moved by rock music should miss it. In 10 years it will be a landmark and you'll have to scramble to buy a copy then. Beat the rush.

Slint formed in 1986 as an outlet and pastime for four friends from Louisville, Kentucky. Their music was strange, wholly their own, sparse and tight. What immediately set them apart was their economy and precision. Slint was that rare band willing to play just one or two notes at a time and sometimes nothing at all. Their only other recording, 1989's Tweez hints at their genius, but only a couple of the tracks have anything like the staying power of Spiderland.

Spiderland is a majestic album, sublime and strange, made more brilliant by its simplicity and quiet grace. Songs evolve and expand from simple statements that are inverted and truncated in a manner that seems spontaneous, but is so precise and emphatic that it must be intuitive or orchestrated or both.

Straining to find a band to compare them with, I can only think of two, and Slint doesn't sound anything like either of them. Structurally and in tone, they recall Television circa Marquee Moon and Crazy Horse, whose simplicity they echo and whose style they most certainly do not.

To whom would Pere Ubu or Chrome have been compared in 1972? Forgive me, I am equally clueless.

Slint's music has always been primarily instrumental, and Spiderland isn't a radical departure, but the few vocals are among the most pungent of any album around. When I first heard Brian McMahan whisper the pathetic words to "Washer", I was embarrased for him. When I listened to the song again, the content eluded me and I was staggered by the sophistication and subtle beauty of the phrasing. The third time, the story made me sad nearly to tears. Genius.

Spiderland is flawless. The dry, unembellished recording is so revealing it sometimes feels like eavesdropping. The crystalline guitar of Brian McMahan and the glassy, fluid guitar of David Pajo seem to hover in space directly past the listener's nose. The incredibly precise-yet-instinctive drumming has the same range and wallop it would in your living room.

Only two other bands have meant as much to me as Slint in the past few years and only one of them, The Jesus Lizard, have made a record this good. We are in a time of midgets: dance music, three varieties of simple-minded hard rock genre crap, soulless-crooning, infantile slogan-studded rap and ball-less balladeering. My instincts tell me the dry spell will continue for a while - possibly until the bands Slint will inspire reach maturity. Until then, play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In ten years, you'll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.

Ten fucking stars.

Steve Albini.

I never got to see them live, I won't lie about it, but by the time the March 30, 1991 Melody Maker - the issue which contained this review - wound its way to Colorado Springs (where I was living at the time), I had already bought my copy of this record.

Backtracking a few years, Tweez (an LP where all the tracks, and the individual album sides themselves in the record's vinyl configuration, are named for the members' parents and pets), while good in its own right, completely fails to give any indication whatsoever that these musicians had the music of Spiderland in their future. Tweez is Slint's "Warsaw" (1977-era Joy Division) as Spiderland is to "Blue Monday".

The segueing Untitled EP (recorded by Albini in 1989) has a new track "Glenn" and a re-recording of Tweez's closing epic "Rhoda" - and it is such a radical reinterpretation, it may as well be a new track based on "Rhoda". I used to dislike the EP because it's all instrumental - but, in listening to it over the past year or so, I think it's utterly phenomenal.

Since this is my blog and I do what I choose with it, the versions presented here have been remastered by yours truly (from the original CD issues). Both Tweez and Spiderland were pressed at relatively low volumes, so I tightened up the levels a bit to give them more oomph. The band and Albini were unhappy with Tweez's final mixdown EQ, so I did some judicious re-EQ to the Tweez tracks to bring a bit more presence back in the middle. And finally, the whole thing is presented in lovely lossless FLAC for your pleasure. I can't abide by such wonderful, life-changing music being subjected to lossy MP3 encoding.

If you don't like the EQ or my mastering job, feel free to buy the originals (AFAIK they're all still in print, though may be hard to find locally).

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SLINT Complete Discography
remastered from redbook CD by

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TWEEZ (1989, Jennifer Hartman Records)
Recorded in 1987 by Steve Albini (credited as Some Fuckin Derd Niffer)

01 Ron
02 Nan Ding
03 Carol
04 Kent
05 Charlotte
06 Darlene
07 Warren
08 Pat
09 Rhoda

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(1994, Touch and Go Records)
Recorded in 1989 by Steve Albini

01 Glenn
02 Rhoda

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SPIDERLAND (1991, Touch and Go Records)
Recorded in 1990 by Brian Paulson

01 Breadcrumb Trail
02 Nosferatu Man
03 Don, Aman
04 Washer
05 For Dinner...
06 Good Morning, Captain

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Files removed. Sorry kids, but check Amazon ;)


Thursday, March 4, 2010

great record: SILKWORM Libertine (1994)

Sorry for the update delay, kids, real life does intrude occasionally and I've also been busy looking for that record. You know, the one that really strikes me as "hey, that's the one! That's the one I'm going to blog next!"...

And oddly enough, while I was already a fan of this week's artist, I never did have this particular record until yesterday. And I've spent the past 24 hours kicking myself in the ass for not discovering it sooner (though admittedly it HAS been physically out-of-print for some time).

Silkworm formed in the thriving postpunk hotbed of Missoula, Montana in 1987, then after spending much of their career in the Pacific Northwest, ended up in Chicago with longtime pal Steve Albini. Tracing a path from 70's retro homage to 80's postpunk to 90's angular indierock, Silkworm was a steady workaday band who reliably issued forth new records every couple years - until 2005, when long-loved drummer Mike Dahlquist was killed (with 2 co-workers) in a car accident near Chicago's Northwest Side by a foolish woman intent on ending her own life (she survived). Needless to say the band ended with this, though two of the members carry on today as part of Bottomless Pit.

Today's record is Silkworm's 1994 release Libertine, their last with founder member Joel Phelps on board (singer, guitars and songwriting). It's a great record that leaps stylistically from Pavement-ish skwonk (I made that word up) to Neil Young rustic to rhythmic postpunk to near Palace-esque Appalachia. They pull it off, somehow, and engineer Steve Albini (him again) captured the enormity of this band's sound just perfectly.

Recorded over a 4-day period in rural Minnesota in May 1994, this record has managed to claw its way to my Desert Island Disc selection in record time. I love the pacing, the songwriting, the rubbery basslines, the sometimes-Televisionesque guitars, the whole damn thing. The quasi-schizoid switching back and forth amongst three different singers (Phelps, bassist Tim Midgett, and guitarist Andy Cohen) just adds to the record's greatness. HIGHLY recommended.

From an archived Matador Records website:

As has been their custom, Silkworm recorded Libertine cheaply and efficiently in a mid-Western recording studio after a lengthy gestation. Discerning listeners will notice the songs of the recording combine to form a compelling inner-rhythm and feel of a high-concept album due to a refinement in the playing and marked diversity in the songs themselves. Libertine includes several classics: Cohen's "Grotto of Miracles", Phelps' "Yen + Janet Forever" and Midgett's "Couldn't You Wait", to our ears the best composition by each of the three writers to date. Many memorable performances are captured on the record: "Written On The Wind" (a self-empowerment dirge), "The Cigarette Lighters" (hey, if W.D.C. can base an entire youth movement on a Gang of 4 rip, please allow this one song nod to Wire, O.K.?), and especially on "Wild In My Day" where the band meticulously recreated the sound and studio environment of the Wedding Present's Seamonsters LP (from the amp settings down to the string gauges and studio engineer).

At the conclusion of the recording the band was asked if they were comfortable with the Hendrix/Television/Band/Roxy Music genre they've invented. Tim Midgett replied "Oh yeah sure". So are we.

The band at the time of this record:

Joel R.L. Phelps -- Telecaster guitar, vocals ("Yen + Janet Forever", "Oh How We Laughed", "The Cigarette Lighters" & "A Tunnel"

Michael Dahlquist -- Drums

Tim Midgett -- Bass, vocals ("Cotton Girl", "Couldn't You Wait?", "Written On The Wind", "Wild In My Day", "Bloody Eyes")

Andrew Cohen -- Stratocaster guitar, vocals ("There Is A Party In Warsaw Tonight", "Grotto Of Miracles")

And now you too can enjoy it!

1994 El Recordo, Ltd.

01 There Is A Party In Warsaw Tonight
02 Grotto Of Miracles
03 Cotton Girl
04 Yen + Janet Forever
05 Oh How We Laughed
06 The Cigarette Lighters
07 Couldn't You Wait?
08 A Tunnel
09 Written On The Wind
10 Wild In My Day
11 Bloody Eyes

EDIT: Removed at new label's request. The record is available digitally via new label Comedy Minus One so go forth and purchase, post-haste!