8. Deerhunter: Revival
This is my track of the year. And I don’t even care for the chorus - that’s how good the verse is! The whole album is pretty good actually, one of the few albums I did much listening to this year, very 4AD and very album-ish. Nice pacing, nice song-to-song transitions, like the one that leads to this one. I’m kind of becoming a fan of Deerhunter, even though their albums don’t completely blow me away. As good as they are, they don’t feel very original; I feel as though I’ve heard it before and in ways that were not very evidently different. But that’s also part of what I like about them - they’re good soldiers for that music, they’re doing it because Bradford Cox has a compulsion to make music. To borrow a phrase from reality tv, they’re in it for the right reasons.
You should read this interview with Bradford Cox, too. Very entertaining: “I mean, I can do whatever. I’ll probably be up until four looking at guitars on eBay and looking at Volvos on Craigslist. I have no interest in actually buying one, I just like to watch the Volvo prices.”
7. Nirvana: Scentless Apprentice
I’m among the dozen or so people who didn’t really get into Nirvana in a big way when Nevermind came out. I could pick out a little of Come as You Are on my acoustic guitar, as could everyone else in my high school at the time, musical or not, and that was as close as I got to fandom. But by listening to it in cars or on borrowed cassettes, I did listen to In Utero quite a bit over time, and - in another instance of conversion-by-drum set - got into it. One song especially.
Heart-Shaped Box is cool. All Apologies is cool. But I’m partial to Scentless Apprentice, and it’s pretty much all about the snare fills and the screaming. I don’t know if you can call that a hook, but whatever it is, it makes me want to skip school and punch cars. Those heavy Albini drums and Cobain’s screaming are pretty much the track. But the unrooted tonality of the song’s mix-matched parts, exaggerated by the bass being so low in the mix, also has something to do with its blistering weirdness.
Now, for some facts about the sessions and the track, I’ll turn to Wikipedia, more and more the go-to source for interesting rock trivia and myth:
"Albini surrounded Grohl’s drum kit with approximately 30 microphones."
"The song "Scentless Apprentice" was written about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, ahistorical horror novel about a perfumer’s apprentice born with no body odor of his own but with a highly developed sense of smell, and who attempts to create the “ultimate perfume” by killing virgin women and taking their scent.”
"On occasions when work on a song mix was not producing desired results, the band and Albini took the rest of the day off to watch nature videos, set things on fire, and make prank phone calls for amusement."
"The members of Nirvana and Albini decided on a self-imposed two-week deadline for recording the album. Wary of interference by DGC, Albini suggested the band members pay for the sessions with their own money, which they agreed to. Studio fees totaled US$24,000, while Albini took a flat fee of $100,000 for his services. Despite the suggestions of Nirvana’s management company Gold Mountain, Albini refused to take percentage points on record sales, even though he stood to earn approximately $500,000 in royalties. While a common practice among producers in the music industry, Albini refused to take royalties because he considered it to be immoral and "an insult to the artist"."
"To prevent the group’s managers and label from interfering, Albini instituted a strict policy of ignoring everyone except for the band members; the producer explained that everyone associated with the group aside from the musicians themselves were "the biggest pieces of shit I ever met"."
"The band members began to have doubts about the record’s sound. During this time Cobain admitted, "The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. The whole first week I wasn’t really interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesn’t happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb." The group concluded that the bass and lyrics were inaudible and approached Albini to remix the album. The producer declined; as he recalled, "[Cobain] wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, ‘Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.’ And I don’t think he felt he had that yet […] My problem was that I feared a slippery slope." The band attempted to fix its concerns with the record during the mastering process with Bob Ludwig at his studio in Portland, Maine. Novoselic was pleased with the results, but Cobain still did not feel the sound was perfect.”
If you’re keeping score, that’s Novoselic: 1 / Cobain: nil, in the Better Judgement Cup. Like Bob Dylan’s off-putting disappointment with Daniel Lanois’ production on Time Out of Mind, it just goes to show that good albums are not necessarily the product of mastermind auteurs.
6. Gowan: Moonlight Desires
Moonlight Desires was an afterschool video favorite of mine, though for the music, not especially the video, the imagery of which I remember being of the pianos and pyramids variety. More precisely: the slow-motion owl, ancient ruins rock-mystic, windswept-hair-and-loose-white-garments, sunspots-not-“moonlight”, helicopter fly-over, multiple-overlay-montage, four-elements-represented, tug-on-invisible-binding-cords, full-on high-80s video treatment. A pungent cocktail.
All that and it was the music that got me! I confess to still liking it a lot, particularly the transition to the chorus and just the repeated chorus chord progression at the end, the only sore spots being the obligatory prog bridge in the middle, all two seconds of it, and the way the noodling electric guitar in the verse is so faintly, orthodoxly present. But I love that cluster of melody and counter-melodies at the end, even now that I’m a little less intoxicated by it, a little more able to see a certain clumsiness in it. It’s like one bar of hook and three bars of hanging in there with the harmony, right in the melody’s range; the other line is four descending tones, the last one momentarily a non-chord tone (you might expect more rigorous counterpoint from a guy with a Royal Conservatory badge). But anyway, it came out nice. At least, the idea of lots gets through. And it’s the kind of thing that always haunted me long after I’d listened to it - melodic variations that multiplied in the imagination over a simple chord figure, as repeatable, as predestined, as the image of a Steinway amid Aztec stonemasonry.
5. Eric’s Trip: My Chest Is Empty
I had two Eric’s Trip albums - Forever Again and Love Tara. I prefer Forever Again because it was the first one I had so I listened to it most, and because it’s a little more subdued than the other. They were pretty much my first brush with the lo-fi rock aesthetic (ah, the joy of whispery vocals over noisy guitar!), and this track, recorded “outside in Ron’s back yard at 4:30 in the morning”, struck me as having, calculated or not, all the romance that that kind of music was supposed to have. Papery drums, diegetic birds achirp, coarse panning, somebody’s sister up at the mic - the romance of making cheap albums. Plus, someone’s playing an incredibly ambitious (for 4:30) “walking” bass line here.
4. The Fall: Couldn’t Get Ahead
You don’t have to know anything about The Fall, its extensive back catalogue, and its everlasting frontman, Mark E. Smith, to love this song - their most popular song, I think. It sounds pretty furious but the lyrics are about some rather quotidian hardships - trying to get a beer, trying to pay rent, trying to get into the bathroom, trying to catch a bus. When I finally figured that out, I liked the song even more. There’s something really comical - and maybe, in a weird punk way, holy - about being so easily and disproportionately frustrated, so unequal to even the petty vexations life puts in your path.
3. Peter Gabriel: That Voice Again
There was an interview with Daniel Lanois I remember reading where he claimed that hip-hop stole his bass/drum production techniques. If not stole, then at least that he and Peter were doing all that shit back in 86. Without weighing in on that, I’ll nonetheless offer up a track potentially supportive of his case, for my money the coolest track on So, That Voice Again (Red Rain is also pretty good; not so fast Sledgehammer). (Speaking of Red Rain and not my “favorite chart”, have you noticed that both in that song and on a track from Us, Love to be Loved, there are moments when tape-rot makes the whole song fall out of tune for a moment? If they’re at all like me, those moments are proud ones for them. Anyway, something from Us will undoubtably make my Charts at some point.) The drumming on this track is shit-hot to begin with, but the sound of the snare reminds me of food, it’s so good. I don’t mean I like food so much that anything good bears comparison only to it; I mean, that snare has such a crisp sound, you just want to pick it up with your fingers and munch on it, like a little cracker.
2. Scott Walker: Boy Child
You’d have to imagine yourself quite the little Christ to make a song like this. Comes Scott Walker, pretender to that hallowed post, announcing his candidacy with a lyric combining sexual, biblical, cosmic-maternal imagery, with some seemingly lifted from Ron Howard’s Willow. But the music is beautiful and makes the whole thing more serious than it has any right to be.
1. Swell: This Is How It Starts
An offhand remark on Sasha Frere-Jones’ blog reminded me of a 90s band that I liked but, because their albums were scarce and because, as SF-J mentions, they never got as big as they might have, I didn’t hear that much of - Swell. This track, This Is How It Starts, was the first Swell track I heard. David Wisdom played them on Nightlines back in the CBC’s golden age (read: before Nightlines was cancelled. I’d also accept “before a blasphemy like The Signal was thought to be a legitimate successor to Brave New Waves”). I used to tape two sides worth of a broadcast every weekend and it was thanks to this devotee’s strategy that I was able to listen repeatedly to this track along with indie “hits” like She Don’t Use Jelly, tracks by “the great mighty Fall”, and garage-sale oddities like hypnosis recordings that Wisdom, with a taste for the peculiar, salted his broadcasts with (this kind of broadcasting became more, not less, magical in the light of day). I remember Wisdom singling out the drum work on this Swell track, saying something perhaps about it being especially musical, which caused me to listen with fierce diligence when I finally did hear more of their songs. And the drumming is pretty cool; the drummer (Sean Kirkpatrick) knew not to play all the time, to play something other than a straight rock beat whenever possible, and that sometimes just a hi-hat was enough. The Swell sound was characterized by light acoustic guitar, nearly inaudible bass, and drumming that was thus prominent without seeming to have been played loudly. The other component was, of course, American indie vocals, which, kept down in the range of Confidentially Spoken English, seemed to ask that they be exempt from attention. Maybe it was this general reticence that kept/saved Swell from rock stardom.
priceless anecdotes drawn from my real experiences and souvenir jpegs of lost time
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