June 6, 2003

Lost Classic Shortcuts

I'm not sure how obscure this major-label LP was/is/will be, nor am I sure that I care how obscure I think it should/could/would be, but I do know one thing: I wish I had known about this record a long time ago. I can say that after one song, "Oblivious," which is actually the best song ever. And there's no shame in putting the best song you ever wrote as the first song on your first LP. Ask Steve Malkmus.

About the song, though: It's a corker. And where I come from (Berea, Ohio), corker means flamenco. Even better if it's acoustic flamenco (I think it's flamenco, but I am from Ohio). And something that might be bongos (or maracas? I don't know. Ohio, again.), and an early prototype of the cheek later mastered by Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian. If you like either (or neither of those bands), Roddy Frame and his Aztec Camera will run up on you. I might be wrong about the flamenco, but goddamnit I am right about the song.

Aztec Camera came along too tardy (1983) for the part of new wave that wasn't abominable, and too early for the Smiths or C86. That's a shame, but that's why we have record stores. While nothing on the record surpasses "Oblivious," almost every track is nearly its equal. Recommended reading: the shimmering "Walk Out to Winter," the quiet-to-(sort of)-loud "The Bugle Sounds at Dawn," and the kooky kountry of "Queen's Tattoos." If I only get to bring one Scottish record to heaven or jail or the suburbs, or wherever they put me, it's going to be High Land, Hard Rain.

-Predrag Beatty

As of right now, Mansun are but a footnote in history. Try bringing up Mansun in conversation and you're almost certain to wind up discussing bad Eurythmics covers and fishnet stockings. Then, once you explain away the confusion, the slightly more aware music fan will say, "Right, they did that Grey Lantern album. I liked that 'Wide Open Space' song." And for almost everyone in the States, the story ends right there.

But see, for me, that's where it really begins. Attack of the Grey Lantern, their debut, was fantastic, and it easily ranks among my favorite albums of all time, but it still has nothing on their second offering. Six is the sound of a band collectively snubbing its fan base and smashing expectation to spectacular effect. No stone is left unturned and no genre unscathed over the course of its 70 monstrous minutes. Mansun nick "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" (yeah, the one from Piotr Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite) and marry it to lyrics about Stanley Kubrick faking it with the moon. They play a song entitled "Cancer" that, at over nine minutes long, features three distinct movements, and they actually have the gall to break into laughter right in the middle of it. There's a minute-long piano ballad called "Inverse Midas." They end "Television" with a two-second blip of our national anthem. Yes, there's even an operatic interlude that includes a voiceover from the legendary Tom Baker entitled "Witness to a Murder Part II." (FYI: "Witness to a Murder Part I" does not appear on the album and may not even exist.)

Admittedly, Six is preposterous-quite possibly the product of more white powder than Bowie saw during his entire stay in Berlin. But there's something compelling about its insanity, the way it veers from classical scores to pedal-morphed guitar solos without so much as a case of whiplash. The story goes that Mansun entered the studio with very little in the way of actual material-nothing but 27 small sections and spare melodies. Whereas every other band would try to flesh out the pieces into complete songs, Mansun decided to do it the harder way: combining the disparate segments as best they could. The result is akin to a collage, but, to their credit, it never feels forced or haphazard. Instead, the approach yields the most challenging and beguilingly unexpected music. It sounds like no one and everyone: Magazine, Joy Division, Prince, Radiohead. Six isn't for the faint of heart, but if you're looking for music that doesn't adhere to such silly notions as genre boundaries and commercial viability, your search is officially over.

FYI II: Although Epic Records did release Six in America in 1998, it was edited to the point that it almost isn't the same album. It is strongly suggested that the listener seek out the version originally released by Parlophone in the U.K.

-Jon Garrett

I have to admit that I am the only card-carrying Mike Patton fan I know. However, the fact remains that he does have an unbelievable voice. For one reason or another, everyone likes to listen to Faith No More's The Real Thing, specifically the song "Epic," in which Patton does some kind of half-rap thing while hitting himself in the head (this is in the video, you understand) with hockey gloves. He and his voice can accomplish a lot more, not that I would have him take back the hockey gloves thing.

Everyone pretty much forgot about Patton and Faith No More after that, but there was a renaissance of interest in Patton's first band, Mr. Bungle, which continued to produce well into the '90s (so did Faith No More, actually, but very few people cared). The band's 1999 release California showcases Patton's talents as well as any album.

He does some kind of proto-Beach Boys thing on "Vanity Fair," which is probably the best song in the Mr. Bungle cannon, with apologies to "Squeeze Me Macaroni" and "Desert Search for Techno Allah," both of which appear on earlier records. Then he flexes on some unclassifiable low-pitch melody during "Sweet Charity," with the sounds of seagulls in the background. Throw in the narrative of a hospital patient on "Pink Cigarette," which ends abruptly with the sounds of a flatlining heart monitor, and you've got yourself one of the most unusual, interesting albums rock music has ever seen.

Patton's voice notwithstanding, it's hard to identify exactly what it is that makes Mr. Bungle's experimental tunes not only tolerable but good. You have to understand that it's melodious, even sappy at times. It takes a while to get accustomed to, but it's worth the trouble.

-Ben Adams

None of the songs on this album have the snarl of "You Really Got Me," the cutesy-pie-ness of "Waiting for You," or the [insert salient characteristic here] of any of the Kinks' actual hits. So why bother with 1968's VGPS? Well, because it's better than The White Album. Or Beggar's Banquet. Or Forever Changes. There, I said it. The Village Green Preservation Society was the best record released in 1968. Everybody knows the Beatles only have one good record anyway. (It's the first half of the U.K. version of Rubber Soul and the good stuff on Revolver.)

By way of comparison, the Kinks have at least three and a half good records. And VGPS is at least 75 percent of one of them. VGPS, among other attributes, has the best ever first three tracks on any one record in the title cut, "Do You Remember Walter?" and "Picture Book." I don't feel in any way obligated or obliged to explain myself, but I'll continue nonetheless.

There's not a bad song on this record. OK, there are a couple of stinkers. But when Raymond Davies is on, which he is here more so than on any of the other "good" Kinks records from 1966 to 1971, he beats any Beatles injection in the world: responsible for everything you like, and some things you don't. See the first three songs, "Big Sky," "Starstruck," and "Animal Farm" for confirmation.

Whether you know it or not, this album has already beat your ass. And the music is just half the story-Davies built your camp on Village, the one where you learned to wear thrift tees and swill PBR. Affecting out-moded blue-collar nostalgia never sounded so new because it began right the fuck here. And right the fuck here sounds a whole lot better than you look.


Perhaps I am cheating a little bit by choosing this album; while it was overlooked upon its release, On Fire is now regarded as a minor classic from the late '80s. I get the sense, however, that with the musical winds shifting in the direction of muddy production and "bluesy" suburban garage-bands, that the hypnotic, meditative songs on this album are falling out of favor, which is why I single it out for praise here. Unfashionable though it might currently be, I dare say you will be hard pressed to find an album that is more ambitious, more disciplined, and more fun to listen to than Galaxie 500's sophomore effort.

Yes, Dean Wareham may be a Harvard-educated snob who breaks up bands over the phone, but he was also, from roughly 1987 to 1994 (inclusive of the second Luna album), the best guitarist in rock music. One listen to the obscurely alternate-tuned solo on "Snowstorm," or the rigorous melodic dissection that closes "Strange" ought to confirm this. Obstinate skeptics are instructed to proceed to the last three minutes of "When Will You Come Home," when, after playing possum with two minutes of simple chord progressions and plaintive vocals, Wareham bursts forth with the album's best moment, a cascade of unhurried and seemingly improvised lead guitar work. He pulls the same trick on a cover version of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," multi-tracking in a way that merged melody, invention, and restraint more successfully than his legions of slow-core followers.

Of course, Wareham was just the most obvious part of the Galaxie 500 formula. Credit also goes to the rhythm section-Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski-whose ability to deal with tempo changes and shifting dynamics was greatly underappreciated; their musicianship is the ingredient so obviously missing from Luna's releases. All together, the three members of this band complemented one another in a way that made their work truly special, and that was never clearer than on On Fire.

-Tom Zimpleman

Although it's only six years old and just the second (but the last) album of Smart Went Crazy's too-brief career, I am confident that Con Art will become something of a classic with time. It already qualifies as unjustly overlooked. Granted, it may be the most mean-spirited album ever made, but Con Art is still a great album to listen to, in part because of the brilliant arrangements of lead singer Chad Clark (who is a frequent studio engineer for Dischord bands), and in part because of the intelligence and humor with which Smart Went Crazy went about deflating its targets. While certainly not high-minded, the songs are at least eloquently minded. Indeed, if there were a soundtrack for a couple breaking up in the midst of a National Academy of Arts and Letters convention, this would be it. All of the literary bases are covered: there's the bizarre short-story song about a break-up ("A Brief Conversation Ending in Divorce"), the elaborately developed allegorical kiss-off ("Bullfighter"), the cynical recollection of better times ("A Good Day"), and, from an outsiders perspective, ridicule for the broken-hearted ("Funny as in Funny Ha-Ha"). Not exactly a hardcore band, not exactly a prog-rock band, Smart Went Crazy fell into the underdeveloped sub-genre of "post-hardcore," bringing muscular drums and angular guitar riffs together with crooning vocals and Hilary Soldati's cello. It's a structure that's sturdier than you might think. The musical and lyrical tension evident on the album doubtless resulted from the band's inability to get along. Listening to lyrics like, "Jesus loves you, but he's alone in the sentiment, so don't get too comfortable," it's not hard to see why they decided to go their separate ways after Con Art's release.