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2020 Year-End List Extravaganza

There was no shortage of excellent music released in 2020, a fortunate development given the (cough) lack of other options for my entertainment budget. I have written about my top 25 records of the year over here and provided sample songs from Bandcamp (and YouTube when necessary). No, seriously, click the link and then head back here. Here’s a large image directing you to it. You could, nay, should click on that.

Top 25 Albums of 2020

There’s an emphasis on physical media in the layout of that list, which involved photographing the labels of each album and moving my desk so that I could take a proper picture of the 25 covers on my shelf. I understand that not everyone has the same fondness for buying buried under piles of vinyl records that I do, but all of those albums are available to purchase digitally as well. No one needs a lecture about the importance of supporting artists, particularly now, so I will spare you the pontification.

I could have easily gone past 25 selections, but the display limitations of my five-by-five Kallax shelf kept the number reasonable. Hopefully you know some of them and check out a few others. If you are interested in further listening, great, here are ten-ish honorable mentions that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Beauty Pill's Please Advise

Beauty Pill / Please Advise: Starting off the year with an overdue pressing of their Sorry You’re Here soundtrack, Beauty Pill raised the bar with the Please Advise EP, adding two fantastic new songs (“Pardon Our Dust” and “The Damndest Thing”), a revelatory cover of The Pretenders’ “Tattooed Love Boys,” a reworking of “Prison Song” from their overlooked 2004 LP The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and a remix varying format to their ever-impressive catalog. Standalone single “Instant Night” should not be missed.

The Casket Lottery / Short Songs for End Times: The Kansas City band continues to skirt the line between emo and post-hardcore. Rolling over half their line-up revitalized the songwriting, and a dedication to putting the guitars first didn’t hurt Nathan Ellis’s big vocal melodies. I’ll take dynamic tracks like “Sisyphus Blues” and “Unalone” over virtually anything else from the last decade of the seventeenth wave of emo.

Coriky / Coriky: Ian MacKaye, Joe Lally, and Amy Farina could have easily kept their latest collaboration to themselves, savoring the joy of their musical chemistry during closed-off practice sessions in the basement. Thankfully they did not, and Coriky relays that honed spontaneity with songs that speak to the moment but avoid being limited by it.

Guided by Voices / Surrender Your Poppy Field & Mirrored Aztec & Styles We Paid For: Robert Pollard’s revitalized band delivers another three albums in 2020, all worthy additions to his towering discography. Each has immediate highlights, stockpiles of riffs and lyrical turns of phrase that the band miraculously hadn’t used yet, and at most one song that starts off as an irritant and eventually grows into a favorite.

Erik Hall's Music for 18 Musicians

Erik Hall / Music for 18 Musicians: Seventeen performers short, Erik Hall records Steve Reich’s classic composition on his own, giving it a very particular signature. Is it more personal? More approachable? Slightly softer? All three? Whatever the case, it’s a welcome addition to the other performances of Music for 18 Musicians in my collection, and demonstrates how such a specific, interlocking piece of work can nevertheless be quite flexible.

Rafael Anton Irisarri / Perepeteia: I dove into Irisarri’s catalog past this year, and while I very much enjoyed the brain-wiping alien landscapes of Perepeteia, I found myself returning to 2019’s Solastagia, 2015’s A Fragile Geography, and 2010’s The North Bend more often. Cursed by his own success!

Savak / Rotting Teeth in the Horse’s Mouth: Savak simply won’t stop releasing excellent music, supplementing their consistently rewarding fourth LP since 2016 with a just-as-necessary seven-inch and a lathe-cut eight-inch. It’s a simple relationship: they put records up to order, I buy them.

Shell of a Shell / Away Team: Pile guitarist Chappy Hull fronts the Nashville quartet Shell of a Shell, whose brand of guitar rock flirts with anthemic melodies on “Knock” and “Away Team,” but cannot deny their deep-rooted desire to bring chaotic strains of noise to the mix. Closing track “Seems Like” embraces the cacophony as it spirals out.

Silver Scrolls' Music for Walks

Silver Scrolls / Music for Walks: Dave Brylawski and Brian Quast of Polvo—would you like me to tell you about Polvo—team up as Silver Scrolls, which picks up where Brylawski’s superb songs on Siberia left off. There’s an easygoing charm to the measured gait of Music for Walks, but complexity bubbles under its surface.

Windy & Carl / Allegiance & Conviction: The welcome return of Dearborn’s ambient dream-pop duo, Allegiance & Conviction puts slightly more emphasis on Windy Weber’s vocals as she spins a loose spy narrative over Carl Hultgren’s ever-drifting guitars. Pour one out for the closing of their beloved Stormy Records.

Reviews: Hum's Inlet

Hum's Inlet

Roughly twenty-five years ago I taped a song off the radio, rewound endlessly to replay it, and then made it my mission to buy a copy of the CD during a high-school trip to Boston. I begrudgingly paid the outrageous sum of $17.99 for a copy of Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut at the Tower Records in Harvard Square—it was out of stock at the nearby Newbury Comics—and, not yet owning a portable CD player, waited anxiously to get home so I could hear the rest of the album.

Over the next days, months, and years, I more than made up for that excruciating delay. I dubbed the CD to one side of a blank cassette and ground its fidelity to mush as I transported myself out of myriad high-school bus rides. The appeal of the introductory single “Stars” was twofold: its massive riffs were bracingly huge, bolstered by a steady undercurrent of compelling textures and melodic leads, but Matt Talbott’s vocals and lyrics eschewed the posturing attitude commonly associated with “heavy” music. The head-fake intro (memorably skewered by Butt-Head: “It sucked but at least it was short”) was quiet and thoughtful, and those qualities remained once the song fully kicked in. The rest of You’d Prefer an Astronaut spiraled out from this combination of overflowing guitars and ponderous, evocative lyrics. Its romantic notions were filtered through stargazing or space-bound narratives, and the album’s lingering threat is becoming untethered, both in literal and relational senses. Hum proved equally adept at meditative mid-tempos (the enveloping drone of “Little Dipper,” the psychedelic imagery and polychromatic tones of “Suicide Machine”), surging rockers (the dark intensity of “The Pod,” the soaring arcs of “I’d Like Your Hair Long”), and ambling odes (“Songs of Farewell and Departure”). You’d Prefer an Astronaut offered familiarity and escape.

You’d Prefer an Astronaut felt like a self-contained world, but after going online and finding their web page (http://www.prairienet.org/~hum/, flaunting a sub-directory and a tilde), I worked my way to Urbana, Illinois' Parasol Mail Order, which offered their earlier records, their t-shirts, related bands, and aesthetically similar bands. I learned how the band went through numerous personnel changes before recording its 1991 debut, Fillet Show, whose groaning pun of a title is an accurate indicator of its contents’ (cough) rather considerable room for growth. After guitarist Balthazar de Lay left to front his own band, Mother (later renamed Menthol), Hum finalized its lineup by adding the youthful Tim Lash on guitar and comparative veteran Jeff Dimpsey on bass (he’d previously played guitar in Champaign-Urbana mainstays the Poster Children and Hum’s brother band, Honcho Overload, alongside bassist Matt Talbott). Thanks to these new additions, 1993’s Electra 2000 was a significant step forward, worthy of being dubbed to the opposite side of my You’d Prefer an Astronaut cassette. Electra is a dynamic, bruising album, driven by the chugging riffs of highlights “Iron Clad Lou,” “Sundress,” and “Winder.” It’s jarring to work backwards to Talbott’s throat-shredding desperation, that approach having been whittled down to a single scream on You’d Prefer an Astronaut’s “The Pod,” and even on its best tracks, Electra 2000’s tonal palette is monochromatic. However raw and comparatively unpolished it may be, Electra 2000 still holds up, especially “Diffuse,” a compilation track added to the 1997 Martians Go Home! CD pressing.

The other breadcrumbs I followed proved that Hum did not exist in a vacuum, that You’d Prefer an Astronaut did not materialize out of thin air. Matt Talbott’s list of his favorite records on Hum’s page (from memory, a cross-selection of turn-of-the-decade indie/alternative guitar rock: Dinosaur Jr.’s Bug, The Flaming Lips’ In a Priest Driven Ambulance, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and half a dozen others I’m less certain of, like Mercury Rev, Swervedriver, and Bitch Magnet) traced one side of their development, and the sonic similarities and shared members of various notable bands from Champaign-Urbana and other significant Midwest college towns tracked another. A communal affinity for thick guitar sounds could be found on Poster Children’s Daisychain Reaction (their lone album featuring Jeff Dimpsey and arguably their heaviest), Honcho Overload’s Pour Another Drink, Zoom’s self-titled debut (Matt Talbott is referenced by name on the jittery “Ephedrine Breakfast” from the band’s second LP, Helium Octipede), and Love Cup’s Greefus Groinks and Sheet (an album still discussed in hushed reverence by people who were there, and also me, who was not). Hum’s evolution from Fillet Show to Electra 2000 makes more sense when contextualized within a regional Midwestern sound. And if You’d Prefer an Astronaut used a major-label recording budget to realize a sound previously out of reach to the group, it’s noteworthy to Talbott’s list of favorites that Flaming Lips producer Keith Cleversley was at the helm.

Hum may have existed within a community of like-minds, but my high school provided no such comforts. No one in my social circle had any interest in going deeper into the alternative / indie waters, so band mailing lists and IRC channels were godsends. The members of Hum did not frequent the band’s semi-official listserv (leaving such future-signaling fan/band interactions to the Poster Children) or #hum (back when hashtags were associated with IRC channels), but I found plenty of great people in similar situations. Like a half-dozen others, I did my service by running a Hum fan site, collecting lyrics, photos, and links to supplement Hum’s skeletal web presence.

Hum’s next album, Downward Is Heavenward, didn’t come out until early 1998. Their perfectionist tendencies took precedence over striking while the iron was hot, and Downward was reportedly recorded twice: first with YPAA producer Keith Cleversley, then with Mark Rubel in Champaign. My previews came from the early demo of “Ms. Lazarus” on the CD5 for “The Pod” (a warm, unfussy run-through of an endlessly endearing track) and a third- or fourth-generation cassette of a live show featuring an embryonic version of “Comin’ Home” (not specifically this one, but here's another 1995 performance of it) which sounded far rawer in its infancy (and/or compromised fidelity) and offered an entirely different chorus (“I’ll treat you like a sound,” which I heard for years as “I’ll treat you like a son”). As the release date approached, fan sites got to post 30-second samples of songs—either in the streamable muck of the briefly in-vogue RealAudio format or the comparative clarity of the nascent, bandwidth-punishing mp3 format—and I obsessed over too-short tastes of “Dreamboat” and “Green to Me.” I ordered the vinyl from Parasol because it was coming out at least a week before the CD hit stores, and patiently waited for it to arrive.

Hearing Downward Is Heavenward for the first time was vastly different from my initial spin of You’d Prefer an Astronaut; I had expectations, I’d heard plenty of other excellent bands and records in the intervening years, and my listen was tempered by the group-think of an internet community. I loved it, but my appreciation wasn’t unqualified. The production sheen felt too glossy in comparison to the mid-fi warmth of You’d Prefer an Astronaut. Not every song clicked immediately (looking at you, “The Scientists”). My hopes for a blistering “Comin’ Home” and an enveloping, intimate “Ms. Lazarus”—what I’d already heard, essentially—were dashed. Those hints of resistance, of grasping onto how much my decaying cassette dub of You’d Prefer an Astronaut meant to my bus rides, were on me, not the band. Eventually I got over it with the help of an eardrum-punishing performance at Irving Plaza in New York City (during my moronic phase of being Too Cool for Earplugs), and I could appreciate Downward Is Heavenward for being different from You’d Prefer an Astronaut. The depth of “Isle of the Cheetah” was like a time-lapse video of organic life taking hold of an abandoned structure. “Ms. Lazarus” needed the extra oomph to fully surge in its final section. “Afternoon with the Axolotls” (though lacking its superlative live intro) was thoughtful and explorative. The double-punch of romance and riffs provided by “Dreamboat” and “The Inuit Promise” made me long for the chance to meet new people I might actually connect with. The deftly recorded reverb of “Apollo” made its ache that much more powerful.

Downward Is Heavenward didn’t come close to replicating the commercial success of You’d Prefer an Astronaut. The sci-fi video for lead single “Comin’ Home” was rejected by MTV’s 12 Angry Viewers, one of the network’s shows designed to combat the (accurate) criticism that it aired a diminishing selection of music videos, and second single “Green to Me” gained no traction. The tides were against them: “alternative rock” skewed more and more “pop” (big singles that year included Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” and The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly [For a White Guy]”); nu-metal was on the rise with the multiple-platinum success of Korn’s Follow the Leader; and Total Request Live pushed the most popular videos to even greater ubiquity. Meanwhile, Hum’s van was wrecked during a June tour through Canada, forcing the cancellation of most of the remaining dates. The band sounded exhausted in interviews, fully aware of the writing on the wall.

Jay Ryan's poster for the 1/1/2009 Hum concert

Hum never released an official statement about breaking up or going on hiatus, but after only playing one show in 1999 and two in 2000, they entered cryo-sleep following an opening slot for The Flaming Lips’ New Year’s Eve show at the Metro in Chicago. The members went their separate ways: Matt Talbott formed Centaur with Castor bassist Derek Niedringhaus and drummer Jim Kelly; Tim Lash started Glifted with Love Cup’s T.J. Harrison; Jeff Dimpsey revived the whispered-about Champaign group National Skyline with Castor’s Jeff Garber; and Bryan St. Pere moved to Indiana for a pharmaceutical job. Centaur and Glifted bifurcated Hum’s DNA for their respective 2002 albums. Centaur’s In Streams took a mournful approach to Hum’s foundations, repeating its big riffs over Matt Talbott’s reserved vocals. (I saw Centaur a number of times, but their curtailed opening set for Shiner in St. Louis is seared into my brain, specifically Talbott sighing “Our band is in this [malfunctioning] pedal” while nursing a comically huge bottle of beer.) Glifted’s Under and In emptied a warehouse of head-spinning metallic shoegaze riffs, with the surprising addition of falsetto vocal hooks on some songs. But each band possessed what the other lacked: Centaur needed Tim Lash’s inventive guitar parts to break the repetition, while Glifted needed Matt Talbott’s emotional resonance and structural support to channel great parts into great songs. Dimpsey’s National Skyline was the best of these projects, particularly their 2000 self-titled EP and 2001’s This = Everything, which simultaneously looked back to U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and ahead to the icy, electronic-bolstered post-emo of groups like Antarctica. But Dimpsey never toured with National Skyline, and that group, too, went on hiatus during Garber’s move to Los Angeles to join Failure’s Ken Andrews in Year of the Rabbit (and later form The Joy Circuit). A second wave of projects appeared in the late ’00s, with Tim Lash forming Balisong and Alpha Mile (no studio recordings, but live footage exists for the latter) and Jeff Dimpsey teaming with Absinthe Blind’s Adam Fein for Gazelle, releasing Sunblown in 2008.

Even in ostensible hiatus, Hum still emerged every few years. Furnace Fest called their asking-price bluff in 2003, and their headlining set was preceded by a local warm-up in Champaign. Sporadic regional dates occurred in 2005 and 2008–2009 (I saw their New Year’s Day show in Chicago), picking up in 2011 around the time of the FunFunFun Festival. Two unreleased songs—“Inklings” and “Cloud City”—frequented their sets at these shows, and I attempted to will a seven-inch with studio recordings into existence. A co-headlining tour with Failure in 2015 marked the most significant action since the release of Downward Is Heavenward. Bryan St. Pere opted out of this tour, aptly replaced by Shiner’s Jason Gerkin, and a year later, the band confirmed that they were working on new material. The still-unreleased “Voyager 1” started appearing in 2016. When I saw them (with St. Pere back in the band) in St. Louis in early 2018 (sharing a bill with a reunited Castor!), they unveiled a few new-new songs: “Folding,” “The Summoning,” and an instrumental version of “In the Den,” none of which felt fully formed yet.

Ben Geier's poster for the 2/24/2018 Hum / Spotlights / Castor show

The idea of Hum releasing new material was always within the realm of possibility, but turning that promise into actuality was a harder proposition to grasp. Given that Matt Talbott owns and operates his own studio (Earth Analog in Tolono, IL, formerly known as Great Western Record Recorders), the logistics for recording were mostly handled. But the band’s timetable-tipping perfectionism made any hypothetical release date seem impossibly optimistic. Said trait dates back to both of their RCA albums, but resurfaced more recently with regards to vinyl reissues. Talbott was understandably miffed at ShopRadioCast having snaked the reissue rights for You’d Prefer an Astronaut in 2013 and not involving the band in the (assuredly CD-sourced, decidedly shitty) pressing. So the 2LP reissue of Downward is Heavenward opted against a cash-grab rush-job and for an extraordinarily patient, results-oriented process. After years of rejected test pressings and other delays, it finally came out in 2018 on Talbott’s own Earth Analog Records (the second pressing on blue vinyl appears to still be available), and was worth every penny. Whereas the original pressing crammed too much music onto a single LP, the reissue gave the songs room to breathe, and the new mastering job added depth and clarity. Adding “Puppets,” “Aphids,” and “Boy with Stick” as bonus tracks on the fourth side was greatly appreciated. The end result was worth the wait, but it didn’t exactly give hope that the new Hum album would appear anytime soon, even with rumblings that “it’s done except for a few vocals.” An added wrinkle came with the news that Talbott was working on a solo album to complement his living room tours (remember touring?), an album that might somehow come out before the Hum record. Early versions of “Sinister Webs” and the sprawling drone “Way Up Here” popped up on Bandcamp, giving the project the proof of life.

And then that mythic new Hum album just… appeared. Inlet was surprise-released on June 23, 2020 on Bandcamp and presumably also lesser digital outlets, and the Earth Analog–pressed vinyl was available for preorder through Polyvinyl (a wise choice after the early blink-and-you-missed-it drops of the Downward Is Heavenward reissue brought both Talbott and eager fans much consternation). It was a blinding ray of sunlight amidst the endless drudgery of quarantine life, a bona fide event to make up for the fact that calendars had been wiped clear for months. Texts were sent and received as I carved time out of my child-watching schedule to actually listen to the album. Around that time the chatter switched from “whoa there’s a new Hum album” to “whoa the new Hum album is great.”

And it is great.

Inlet’s surprise drop reversed my expectations-burdened introduction to Downward Is Heavenward. Even with the knowledge that Inlet would arrive at some point, the twenty-two years of distance from Downward and all of the offshoot projects—satisfying, underwhelming, and forgotten alike—wiped the slate clean for both this fan and the band. I wasn’t paralyzed by comparing subjective quality, while Hum weren’t boxed in for their next moves. I’ve seen a few people assert that Inlet could have easily come out a year or two after Downward and I respectfully disagree; the ways in which Hum’s sound and perspective have shifted depend on that timeframe. The songs are longer, with stretches of meditative repetition drawn from stoner/doom metal. Matt Talbott’s lyrics largely trade the brightness of Downward highlights like “Dreamboat” for a lived poetic perspective on his fleeting place within nature, within humanity, within the galaxy, like Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum writing bittersweet sci-fi memoirs. Inlet isn’t disconnected or displaced from the continuity of Electra 2000, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and Downward Is Heavenward—there are riff-churning, melodically buoyant tracks here, don’t worry—but like Polvo’s return albums In Prism and Siberia, Inlet exhibits a band that did not stop evolving, even if the signposts of studio recordings did not appear to document that journey.

The eight tracks on Inlet sift into three different modes: mid-tempo melodic rockers, ultra-heavy evocations of stoner metal, and ponderous, introspective odes. The first category is the most populous, offering “Waves,” “In the Den,” “Step into You,” and “Cloud City.” (“Inklings” is curiously absent from Inlet, perhaps viewed as remnant of Downward instead of a step forward.) As much as I’ll argue that Inlet doesn’t exclusively traffic in the nostalgic thrall of a classic sound captured in amber, there’s no denying the dopamine rush of that guitar sound when the post-Loveless arcs of “Waves” hit. Those layers of immaculately crafted guitars offer an immediate, resuscitative balm, continuing to reveal new overdubs on the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth spin. “Waves” looks back upon past, unspoken struggles (“They don’t know of my solitary days”) as Talbott gazes off into an uncertain future, but there’s a comforting serenity to this distanced perspective as the song churns and crests, closing with “To see beyond the boiling sun / To the other side / And the wonders didn’t end.” The lack of an emphatic, hooky chorus in “Waves” (an element Hum deprioritizes for much of Inlet) is quickly rectified by “In the Den,” which offers the album’s most catchiest refrain. It’s hard not to appreciate “I am still alive and what's coming true / Is the signal to my return, oh! / Find me here on the ground and in need of you” as a meta-level statement on Hum’s reappearance, and the liveliness of that “Oh!” cannot be understated. If Inlet came out on a major label, there would assuredly be a single edit for “In the Den,” which rides its soaring riff almost seven minutes before fading out, but Hum’s propensity for savoring its work doesn't tip against the listener’s favor. “Step into You” is Inlet’s shortest song at just over four minutes and its most conventionally structured, switching between a satisfyingly chunky verse riff, a slowed-down chorus progression, and a silvery guitar solo. In contrast, “Cloud City” lets its sci-fi tinged verses (“Crowds would gather on the traces of the outer rings”) give way to the tremendous gravitational pull of the guitar workout black-hole where a chorus might have once lived, fueled by Bryan St. Pere’s best, most pummeling work on Inlet.

While those four songs offer a comfort-food buffet for starving Hum fans, “Desert Rambler” and “The Summoning” expand the menu’s offerings. The stylistic stamp of stoner/doom metal on Inlet is not without precedence: Matt Talbott’s bar Loose Cobra in Tolono, IL, has hosted Oktstoner Festival, and it’s a natural progression from the skeletal riff-and-repeat approach of Centaur’s songs. I recall being at Parasol after Centaur had played a show in Chicago with Pelican (having just released their untitled debut EP) and drummer Jim Kelly sang the band’s praises. It wasn’t a one-way relationship—the leads of the title track to City of Echoes demonstrate how much Pelican drew from Hum—and it’s on these songs that Hum reflects back upon some of the bands they influenced and remain within their orbit, whether that’s the continent-shifting churn of early Pelican, the metal-tinged instrumental rock of Ring, Cicada offshoot Dibiase (who’ve released an EP and an LP on Talbott’s Earth Analog Records), or the heavy slow-core group Cloakroom (who chose Talbott to produce their 2015 LP Further Out and got him to sing lead vocals for their b-side “Dream Warden”). “Desert Rambler” spans nine minutes, alternating between a mammoth verse riff that Talbott nearly has to bellow over and dreamy, barren bridges and choruses. Even before chiming notes swoop over the top of the machinery, there’s a impressive build-up of undercurrent textures (to the mystifying chagrin of the otherwise satiated Stephen Malkmus, a comment which at last connected my high-school fondness of both Hum and Pavement). “The Summoning” is somehow heavier and slower (who do they think they are, Pinebender?), but even with the foreboding crush of its main riff and the serrated edge of the harmonic accents, Talbott’s sheepish nature (“Let this be the last assumption that you were never wrong / I am ever wrong”) and detached perspective (“Just a twist and I'm gone / Through the ether and on to home”) offer a variation on the juxtaposition between form and content that initially drew me to Hum’s music. Given how Hum’s aesthetic leap on Electra 2000 was driven by predecessors and peers, adding the influence of their protégés on “Desert Rambler” and “The Summoning” while still scanning as Hum songs feels fitting.

Inlet’s final two songs are my clear favorites on the record, applying the analgesic guitar tones of the up-tempo tracks to the sprawling terrain of the Mesozoic stompers, and uncovering new lyrical depth in the process. “Folding” and “Shapeshifter” each stretch to eight minutes, hinging upon a very relatable combination of overwhelmed by what might come next and comforted by the lasting resonance of his loving relationship. “Folding” weaves a melodic lead around Talbott’s ponderous verses—“Do you feel tremors here? / Do you feel the same like you used to?”—then lets Jeff Dimpsey’s undulating bass line take hold before asserting “I could never be two / I’ve got it in for you” in the shimmering coda. The last two minutes of “Folding” quietly pulse as delay-drenched scrapes curl overhead, a ruminative enclave before Inlet’s closing track. “Shapeshifter” allows its evocative guitar line to play out in full before Talbott’s vocals come in, and there’s no better encapsulation of his lyrical appeal than its opening verse:

          I remember the skies and the sand
          I remember your face and your lovely hand
          Words poured out on a dusty land
          And gravity comes to us all
          I feel the engines stall
          Feel us start to fall

The chorus of “Shapeshifter” elongates its syllables into an immersive wash, floating over a slow-moving sunset. The bittersweet bridge—“While you let the water in / I dreamt again that I couldn’t swim”—builds into a C-Clamp-esque plateau of sustained guitar, and then switches to the cleaner chords of the song’s back half. The titular shapeshifting occurs as Talbott envisions himself as a butterfly, a fawn, and a bird, a fanciful sequence motivated by “Finding myself past the half-life of me” and pondering other forms of existence. This passage ties together the recurring themes of Inlet, and the record ends with the warmth of “Suddenly me just here back on the land / Reaching for you and finding your hand.” These two songs are part of a lineage with “Suicide Machine” and “Ms. Lazarus,” but the imagery has been refined, the emphasis on mortality no longer feels hypothetical, and there’s no drama within the relationship, only calming reassurance.

Listening to Inlet enacts a strange push-and-pull of going back and moving forward. I’m transported back to my high school days, to when my fondness for this band was at its most consuming, but I’m not trapped back in 1997, just recalling the past as the past. My enjoyment of Inlet isn’t dependent upon that timeframe: the album doesn’t resonate with me now solely because it would have resonated with me then. It resonates with me more now than it would have in high school. That’s a rare achievement for reunited bands (joining successes like Polvo and Slowdive), which involves passing up the easy move of wearing their glory days like an old t-shirt, regardless of whether it still fits. Sometimes that shirt does still fit, giving fans a swell of nostalgia for a rose-colored era and the band a rush of renewed adulation, but those swells and rushes subside as the present regains its focus. Inlet’s lyrics never inhabit the past. They look back, sure—the chorus of “Step into You” begins “Remember how / Your voice was an echo to me”—but Matt Talbott doesn’t write like he’s returned to his twenties or thirties. The same song rejects the temptation of writing from the past, closing its first two memory-chasing verses with “And everything here isn’t true” and signing off with “I am over it / I’m a dried-up, wind-blown cocoon.” Talbott is at peace with where he is now, and that’s where Inlet’s songs reside.

I’ll never experience Inlet with the same singular focus as I did You’d Prefer an Astronaut with the dubbed cassette and the daily bus rides and the feeling of entering an unfamiliar-yet-familiar world and staying there, but Inlet offers a different path to residing within the album on its own terms. While Hum’s fan base cheerfully revisits the past to help process Inlet (ahem), the band declines that journey. They delivered the album and backed off. There’s been a notable absence of promotional interviews for Inlet, with Bryan St. Pere’s pleasant, if not especially revelatory 2018 appearance on Joe Wong’s The Trap Set podcast remaining the most helpful link I can pass along. (Fingers crossed for a Matt Talbott appearance on Allen Epley’s Third Gear Scratch podcast, comparing notes over how Hum approached Inlet and Shiner approached their own reunion record, Schadenfreude.) There are no lyrics included with Inlet and only the barest credits on the album’s gatefold sleeve, let alone explanatory liner notes. No song-by-song walkthroughs exist to provide insight, no Reddit AMA to answer fan questions. No promotional videos. No livestreamed performances. No advance singles with exclusive debuts. Given how uncomfortable the members of Hum appeared with the machinations of major-label life—that awkward interview with noted fan Howard Stern, Matt Talbott and Tim Lash’s inexplicable chicken and bunny suits on 120 Minutes, their clear disinterest in fashionable turns like the Smashing Pumpkins’ goth-glam makeover for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness—and how their only priorities seemed to be recording (and possibly re-recording) albums and crushing audiences with massive volume levels, it’s not a surprise that the band abandoned the promotional circus. Inlet is entirely on Hum’s terms: recorded at Talbott’s studio by Talbott, Lash, and Earth Analog house engineer James Treichler, mixed by Lash, released on Talbott’s label. No guest musicians, no outside producer. What’s absent is significant. It’s a bold gambit, dependent upon the size and voracity of the band’s audience. They delivered the album, this album. That’s enough.

I won’t provide a final verdict on Inlet or a qualitative ranking of Hum’s albums; I spent over twenty years with You’d Prefer an Astronaut and Downward Is Heavenward, so calling Inlet after five months seems cruelly premature. It’s an ongoing process, one that will continue after tour dates safely reappear and my eardrums have been bludgeoned by full-volume renditions of these still-new songs. I am, however, willing to declare my lingering astonishment over Inlet. I should not have been this surprised—there were good reasons why they held the title of my favorite band for a long time—and yet Hum was not content to merely remind me of those reasons. Much of their critical legacy is bound to a specific guitar sound, one that could be distilled, purified, and injected into a Deftones album, and Inlet both demonstrates how breathtaking the genuine article of that guitar sound can still be and reinforces the singularity of their songwriting, which continued to evolve in absentia. No matter how many bands have emulated Hum, only one band can write songs like “Folding” or “Shapeshifter.”

Reviews: Chris Frantz's Remain in Love

Chris Frantz's Remain in Love

The name of this memoir is Remain in Love, a dual reference to Talking Heads’ finest album, 1980’s Remain in Light, and Chris Frantz’s forty-plus years of marriage to Tina Weymouth, his bandmate in both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. But if you’re a fan weighing the prospect of uncovering more behind-the-scenes acrimony between the rest of the band and David Byrne, the title hits differently. Will the expected vilification of Byrne soil the band’s legacy, Byrne’s legacy, or both? Is Remain in Love something you should avoid if you want to, uh, you know?

Well, yes, you should avoid Remain in Love, but not for the perceived threat to your enjoyment of the Talking Heads catalog. Remain in Love is a trying, often tedious book, and David Byrne does not come off particularly well in it, but those two aspects are not bound in the way I expected. I didn’t put the book down every couple of pages during its momentum-defying middle because I was dreading the revelation of some new misgiving from Byrne; I kept putting the book down because it was flat, uninsightful, and repetitive. I kept putting the book down because its narrative felt overtly filtered through the page-one assertion that “You could say that Tina and I were the team who made David Byrne famous,” a push to reclaim the band’s legacy from the supposed sole ownership of David Byrne. (Sorry, Jerry Harrison.) The degree to which the chip on Frantz’s shoulder—deserved or not—determined what the book would cover and how major players would be depicted, including Frantz himself, greatly limited any potential insights.

Allow me to take stock of those major players:

Jerry Harrison: The new owner of the “Most underappreciated member of Talking Heads” belt, Jerry Harrison is sidelined for most of Remain in Love. It’s understandable to an extent—he didn’t go to RISD, joined the band after they were somewhat established in NYC, and was neither married to nor an enemy of another member—but if you’re hoping to learn anything about Harrison beyond his previous tenure in the Modern Lovers, his occasional horniness, his brief depression and substance issues during the recording of Speaking in Tongues, or his taste in tour bus literature, prepare to be disappointed. Outside of the book I learned that Harrison was preparing to tour Remain in Light for its 40th anniversary with guitarist Adrian Belew and the band Turkuaz. I assume that tour, like all things, has been postponed indefinitely, but it was nice to read about his cordial relationship with David Byrne.

Johnny Ramone: If Remain in Love has a villain beyond David Byrne, it’s the Ramones guitarist, who was physically abusive with his girlfriend as he sulked his way through a European tour with Talking Heads. (Did he want to see Stonehenge? He did not.) This Frantz takedown, however, is thoroughly odd: “Johnny was still angry at us about our love of art, history, and culture. He said so as if this was ruining his life. I just looked at him and said, ‘Johnny, this tour will be over soon. Let me just say, in spite of all your bad moods, we are very happy to be here with your guys and one day you will realize that we are the best opening act you have ever had or will ever have.’” Did either side of that conversation take place?

Brian Eno: The producer of More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light starts off as a breath of fresh air and proper manners (especially in contrast to the misogynistic Phil Spector), but by the time Fear of Music’s lackluster initial mixes came back to the band, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had begun to grow weary of his input. Aside from allegations that Eno and David Byrne conspired to re-record Weymouth’s parts on Remain in Light once she was out of the studio, the biggest gripe with Eno was how much credit—specifically financial—he should receive for that album. After the sessions, Eno asked the participants to write their proposed percentage splits on a piece of paper, thinking the averaged numbers would be fair to everyone, and was tremendously insulted by the results. Chris Frantz did not include his proposed percentages, but writes “Brian was lucky we agreed to give him anything.” If you want more Eno, I heartily recommend David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, which is endlessly entertaining and enlightening.

The Heads: Something that goes entirely unmentioned in Remain in Love is Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison’s 1996 album No Talking, Just Head as The Heads, a Byrne-free reunion with a variety of guest vocalists ranging from Blondie’s Debbie Harry to Live’s Ed Kowalcyk. (Harrison produced Live’s super-hit Throwing Copper, hope he took the points.) The album’s release and tour were submarined by a lawsuit by David Byrne, but the lead single, “Damage I’ve Done” featuring Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, bounced around MTV for a bit. (I revisited it and nope, still not a fan.) When asked about The Heads experience by Rolling Stone, Frantz says that he “didn’t want to write about an experience that was kind of a downer for me in the end,” telling the interviewer that he canceled his RS subscription over their critical review of the album.

David Bowman: The author of the 2001 book This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century is not mentioned by name, but when Chris Frantz says in the preface that “A number of books have been written about us, but most of them are not very good and none of them have given the reader the true inside story,” the target is clear. Remain in Love refutes several prominent stories from that book.

Adrian Belew: The guitarist whose inventive work elevated Remain in Light and Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut is mentioned sparingly, but is the subject of one of the biggest changes in narrative. Bowman’s book claims that Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth asked Belew if he would replace David Byrne in Talking Heads, an offer which he politely declined in deference to Byrne. In Remain in Love, Frantz says “We had talked to Adrian about becoming a permanent member of Tom Tom Club as a singer and guitarist. Somehow, this was misinterpreted by Adrian […] he thought we were asking him to replace David in Talking Heads, as if we could do that.” Talking Heads without David Byrne? Who could imagine such a thing?

Tina Weymouth: I have not read David Bowman’s This Must Be the Place, but judging from reviews and this 2003 Salon piece in which Bowman asserts “she really is the Lady Macbeth of rock” (and relays a string of mortifying things she’s said about Byrne), it is not kind to Tina Weymouth. Chris Frantz makes up for that treatment and then some. During Remain in Love, she never says a negative thing to anyone who wasn’t clearly a villain (e.g. Johnny Ramone, Phil Spector). She comes off as a saint, routinely lifted up by his fawning descriptions of her innate beauty, fashion choices, stage presence, and creative impulses. Maybe she is a saint! Maybe that’s how you stay married for over forty years! But it’s a sign of the surface-level engagement in Remain in Love that Weymouth’s personality never fully blossoms. Recalling full conversations is not in Frantz’s repertoire, so he moves from event to event through extractable details, and those details aren’t treated with an analytical eye. Do I get an inside sense of what makes Tina Weymouth a fantastic bass player (and she certainly is!) aside from a natural aptitude for the instrument? No. After reading Peter Hook’s Joy Division and New Order memoirs (I’ll get back to those books in a bit) and Paul Hanley’s The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, I had a greater appreciation for what they did as bassists, and what their fellow musicians were doing. Remain in Love didn’t expand my understanding of how Talking Heads worked, and that’s a disservice to all four members, but especially Weymouth.

Talking Heads audiences: If I learned anything from Chris Frantz going over nearly every Talking Heads concert up until Fear of Music, it’s that there were two different types of Talking Heads audiences in the ’70s: most were immediately and thoroughly in love with the band’s music (“I have no doubt that a certain degree of rapture was achieved by everyone in attendance”), but some required two songs before “we won them over with our energy and attitude.” There was remarkably little struggle to their ascent. The Talkin’ ’Bout the Tour section is a standard for music memoirs, but Frantz focuses on drab details, not shifting dynamics. What did they wear? What did they eat? What hotel did they stay at? How many encores did they get? What notable people did they meet? Reading these details over and over was like consuming a bottomless bowl of bran flakes.

David Byrne: In case I’m coming off as a David Byrne stan, I’ll recap the worst of his offenses discussed in Remain in Love. At RISD, he covertly reorganized an art show (that was ultimately canceled) to put his paintings up front. During the early days of Talking Heads, he made Tina Weymouth audition and re-audition to be the band’s bass player. Once the band started recording and releasing music, he secured the exclusive writing credits for many of their songs. He encouraged the addition of a second bass player for Remain in Light and the subsequent tours, diminishing Weymouth’s role. He mentioned the possibility of the band breaking up or him leaving the band in interviews without discussing it first with the other members. He was impossibly demanding during the Stop Making Sense tour and on the set of True Stories. He damaged a hotel room once. He essentially ghosted the other members after 1988’s Naked and announced that the band was over in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. He decided to leave his wife after the band’s 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

All valid criticisms!

I’ve read enough music memoirs and biographies to be prepared for such indiscretions. After Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements and three books on The Fall, I had to reset the bar for bad behavior and dictatorial control to account for The Mats and Mark E. Smith. (I can only laugh at the thought of Chris Frantz joining The Fall and encountering MES’s arbitrary and/or punitive assignment of songwriting credits.) The heavy drug usage and interband infidelity in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk makes those elements seem practically quaint in any other book (respectively, they are minimized and non-existent in Remain in Love). These more extreme examples don’t serve to excuse what David Byrne did, but to explain my constant thought of “There must be something worse coming,” and being surprised when it never did.

It’s not a secret that David Byrne is a strange guy—his off-kilter lyrical perspectives are a big part of Talking Heads’ appeal—and the discussion of his borderline case of Asperger’s syndrome in his 2012 How Music Works book offers some context for that behavior. Neither Byrne nor his bandmates knew about or understood his placement on the autism spectrum during Talking Heads’ run (“Watch out for the autism,” Tina Weymouth is quoted as saying in the 2003 Bowman article, turning the diagnosis into an epithet), but many of Byrne’s quirks make more sense given that context. Before Chris Frantz even met Byrne, he knew of him as an anti-social, heavily bearded guy floating around their RISD dorm. And yet he chose to be in a band with Byrne (The Artistics) and then move to NYC to form a different band with Byrne, while living in a decrepit loft space with both Byrne and Weymouth. The aforementioned indiscretions aside, there’s remarkably little conflict in their relationship, despite living and touring together. (Contrast these accounts with the oil-and-water mix of Blake Schwarzenbach and Chris Bauermeister as documented in Don’t Break Down: A Film about Jawbreaker.) Many of Frantz’s petty jabs target Byrne’s atypical behaviors—on multiple occasions, Frantz insists Byrne’s interest in cybernetics is mere posturing to appear smarter; there’s a judgmental description of Byrne standing by himself at a party, unable or unwilling to socialize, that hits very close to home—often in contrast with the extreme comfort that Frantz and Weymouth found in social situations.

Either in spite of or due to Chris Frantz depicting both himself and Tina Weymouth as largely faultless, eminently social human beings and David Byrne as an inexplicable and sporadically cunning weirdo, I found myself feeling for Byrne. Frantz never wonders how the band’s rapid, ever-escalating success affected someone who was, by Frantz’s own account, simultaneously drawn to and uncomfortable in the spotlight. It’s Frantz’s expectation that Byrne would suddenly change, that he would normalize and process emotions and friendships the same way Frantz and Weymouth did, that baffles me. Weymouth’s prior criticisms that Byrne is “a man incapable of returning friendship” who doesn’t “love” his former bandmates is echoed in several places by Frantz, most notably in a reprovement of Byrne for “the sin of omission” because he was incapable of giving credit or compliments to his bandmates. Did he express his appreciation or fondness in different ways? It’s unclear. It never seemed easy to be Byrne’s artistic collaborator, let alone friend, but Frantz’s rancor often surpasses the described behavior.

Chris Frantz: I’ll step back for a second to discuss a pair of books with a similar gambit. By the time Peter Hook published Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and Substance: Inside New Order, he was out of New Order on acrimonious terms. By the time I read those books, Hook had toured on the back catalogs of both bands, a decision I had viewed as questionable, if not desperate. It wasn’t that I viewed Hook as an inessential part of either band—his bass lines are their defining musical feature—but it was odd, if not unprecedented, that someone who was (barring a few cuts on Movement) not the singer of the band would go out and sing those songs.

After reading Unknown Pleasures and Substance, I will readily admit that I was wrong. Peter Hook has an equal claim to those bands’ legacies and every right to tour that material. Not only did those books delve into his specific contributions to classic songs (which, in the case of New Order, often went beyond the bass part), he’s a convincing narrator. There’s a “let me tell you about my life while I have a pint at the pub” quality to Hook’s writing that’s steadfastly appealing; to embrace the cliché, you feel like you were there. He’s brutally honest about the band’s faults and especially his own faults. He has plenty of regrets—personal, professional, romantic—and never hesitates to reveal his darkest, least flattering moments. Does he discuss Bernard Sumner’s bad actions during their power struggles? He sure does. But he also establishes why he loved being in a band with Sumner, what unique elements Sumner contributed to those bands, and why he misses their former bond. He paints the whole picture, warts and all.

I thought about Peter Hook’s memoirs often during Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love, initially because of that similar legacy-wrangling gambit. Would I be swayed to Team Frantz? But after I got through the initial section on Frantz’s youth, I kept getting tripped up by the absence of critical self-analysis. There’s no humility to Remain in Love, just a series of big wins. The mistakes and regrets that made Hook approachably human are never mentioned or acknowledged. Frantz discusses his relationship with Andi Shapiro, which lasted at least a year at RISD, but once he saw Tina Weymouth, he was in love with her. Both Frantz and Weymouth were in relationships when Frantz made a late-night visit to Weymouth’s apartment and asked to sleep with her (she politely declined), but Frantz doesn’t remember this action as a questionable move on his part, but an encouraging sign of a future with Weymouth. There’s no acknowledgment of a breakup with Andi—the following school year she’s still with him and sharing a studio space, then he’s suddenly in a relationship with Weymouth—but she’s mentioned a couple of times later in the book as a dear friend. At the very least, it should have prompted an editorial note.

I relayed that part to a friend, who dismissed it as a non-issue: “That’s art school for you.” But for the rest of the book, it made me wonder “What isn’t Chris Frantz mentioning?” Remain in Love has an unspoken focus on the good times—note again the absence of The Heads’ No Talking, Just Head—and at points, that works to its favor. The best chapters are separate from the central conflict: without having to worry about keeping score with David Byrne, he relaxes when talking about Tom Tom Club, Weymouth and his production duties for Happy Mondays and Ziggy Marley, and (for the most part) his appreciation of the B-52s. (He still revels in how disagreements over David Byrne’s production of Mesopotamia led it to be curtailed to a commercially unsuccessful EP.) It’s fair that he’d prefer to bask in the glow of “Genius of Love” than mention Tom Tom Club’s three albums after 1988’s Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, and even great biographies, like the previously recommended On Some Faraway Beach, spend far more time on beloved records than forgotten ones. But it’s hard not to notice how much Frantz massages both his and Byrne’s resumes to serve his agenda. While Frantz’s greatest successes are heightened, David Byrne’s artistic contributions are minimized (his lyrics are barely mentioned; he dismisses the choreography of Stop Making Sense as a rip-off of theater director Robert Wilson, who Frantz fails to mention would later collaborate with Byrne on The Knee Plays) and his failures are emphasized (schadenfreude abounds when The Catherine Wheel sells a hundredth of Tom Tom Club and when True Stories fizzles at the box office).

There’s only one moment when Frantz discusses a major personal failing and it is absolutely buried in Remain in Love. After a few brief mentions of his cocaine habit following the success of the Tom Tom Club’s first album, a stray paragraph in the penultimate chapter (which is mostly about yachting in the Bahamas and running into famous friends) reveals how Weymouth gave him an ultimatum in 1984 to clean up his act or their marriage was over. To the best of my memory, it’s the only marital strife Frantz recalls, amidst an endless stream of flowery assertions that their love was never stronger than in that current moment. Peter Hook would have dwelled in that moment, sweating over the health of his relationship, but Frantz rushes through it so he can mention encountering Patti Smith dressed in all black on a beach in the Bahamas.

I’m left with an incomplete picture of the author. Chris Frantz seems very nice, and it’s entirely possible that he is. I don’t know! Remain in Love is a book-length version of “My greatest weakness is caring too much.” From the best that I can tell, both Frantz and Tina Weymouth are friendly people and superlative musicians who suffer from an enormous complex regarding their personal and professional relationship with David Byrne. On one hand, I get it. There’s no denying that the rhythm section of Talking Heads was foundational to the band’s success, that Talking Heads would not have been Talking Heads without them. Harboring continued resentment over David Byrne securing sole songwriting credits for many songs and choosing when the band was over is understandable. It was their livelihood too. Seeing Byrne monetize the band’s back catalog with the American Utopia Broadway show while being disinterested in reuniting the band must be frustrating. But Remain in Love is so committed to serving its “Isn’t David Byrne the worst?” agenda that a fundamental conundrum is never addressed. If you hate him so much, why do you want so badly to perform with him again? If his contributions are so overrated, why are they necessary? Frantz concludes Remain in Love by contrasting Byrne’s anti-reunion statement that “it’s time to move on” with his own assertion that “When speaking about my family, my friends, and my band, I am not a person who ‘moves on.’ I remain—and I remain in love.” Maybe that’s commendable loyalty. Or maybe it’s stubbornness, and his unwillingness to move on, to reassess, to change perspectives makes Remain in Love an infuriating book, forever stuck in a grudge.

Talking Heads: Remain in Love certainly didn’t give me a greater appreciation of or affection for the music of Talking Heads, but thankfully, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment either. One of Chris Frantz’s best decisions is talking about their 1980 concert in Rome during the opening chapter, a high point for the band and its expanded, Remain in Light-era lineup. That performance is available in full in YouTube, and rather than suffer through this book, spend your time watching that set. Pull out one of their classic records or put on the Stop Making Sense movie. Their music remains cerebral and physical, challenging and fun, serious and playful, familiar and new. Their interpersonal fissures may never close, but what they achieved together rises above the infighting.

Quarantined by Voices: A Day with Robert Pollard

Quarantined by Voices: A Day with Robert Pollard

For a long time I was fond of, but not obsessive over, Robert Pollard’s cultural institution Guided by Voices. This vaguely contrarian position was intentional. Knowing the tendencies of my brain and their depths of their catalog, I could see the path laid out before me: tracking down limited-run split singles for the “real classics,” spending weeks with each 100-song Suitcase supplement, eagerly awaiting solo albums and side bands. Truly becoming one of the “But have you heard ‘Dirigible Luggage Compartment’ from the Warlocks in Crevices EP? That’s one of his best songs, you have to hear it” guys. I pushed off this inevitable fate as long as I could, sticking with a half-dozen of the readily available albums that I’d picked up over the years.

My push off the ledge came late in 2015 when my friend Scott mailed me his extra copy of Propeller, which was not one of the half-dozen, readily available albums with which I was familiar. I decided to consume as much of the Pollardverse as I could over the next year, trading assessments with Scott as I moved from album to album. I intended to write about the experience at the time, but despite listening to the vast majority of the band’s output released to that point, I never stopped to collect my thoughts. I couldn’t—Pollard never stops. By April of 2016, there was a new Guided by Voices reunion, a new Guided by Voices lineup, a new Guided by Voices album. I still had Suitcases to unpack, Circus Devils to wrangle, post-2005 solo albums to dutifully digest. It had taken a year but I was finally overwhelmed, finally defeated by his boundless output. I’ve seen Guided by Voices three times since 2016 and I’ve learned a key lesson around the two-hour mark of those sets: Pollard will out-rock anyone.

Given my ongoing lack of anything better to do on a Saturday, I’ll spin as many Guided by Voices records as I can in one day, compiling my current thoughts on the individual albums and finally relaying whatever wisdom I accrued from my deep dive four years ago (I admittedly failed the test for recalling the finer details from extracurricular material like James Greer's Guided by Voices: A Brief History, Twenty One Years of Hunting Accidents, fan-excavated song histories, and consensus-probing review assessments). I can only play what I own on vinyl, so nothing before Propeller, but there aren't enough hours in the day for me to get through what I do own.

Propeller, 1992

Guided by Voices' Propeller

Propeller isn’t a hidden gem. People know it’s good. Many of its songs still grace their set lists, including the opening chant of “G! B! V! G! B! V!” from “Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox.” But unless you stroll into a portal to 1992, you will not find it on vinyl for a reasonable price at a record store. Its initial, self-released pressing of 500 copies featured unique, hand-made covers, and the top selling price on Discogs for one of these numbered editions is a whopping three grand. Later pressings—an inclusion in the 1995 Box along with their other early records, the 2005 Scat reissue—are neither plentiful nor cheap, and a $20 reissue would be a godsend. (It might happen—a long-overdue reissue of 1993’s Vampire on Titus is coming as an unofficial Record Store Day title this year, whenever Record Store Day ends up occurring.) You can, of course, hear Propeller on Spotify or buy it on CD (perhaps a used copy of the combo edition with Vampire on Titus), but where’s the fun and tremendous expense in that?

Propeller is an aptly-titled shove down the path to obsession. With apologies to Box-enclosed titles like Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, Propeller is when Guided by Voices became GBV, when Pollard both authored and lived up to his self-mythology. It’s when his penchant for cut-and-paste palimpsests came to fruition, when fist-pumpers like “Exit Flagger” could transport the band from a Dayton garage to a packed football stadium, when a gentle Tobin Sprout contribution like “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” could complicate attempts to derive a specific formula for the band’s greatness. Is it the band’s best album from front-to-back? Probably not, but it’s astonishingly close.

Surrender Your Poppy Field, 2020

Guided by Voices' Surrender Your Poppy Field

A few months ago I reserved a copy of the newest Guided by Voices album at the record store, and enjoyed an interaction in which neither of us could initially remember the title, and just before I pulled Surrender Your Poppy Field out of the deep recesses of my brain, I joked that “I could say almost anything right now and it would be plausible.” It’s easy to envision Robert Pollard extracting twenty new songs from a large hat of classic rock / British Invasion variables and a dog-eared dictionary, and his idiosyncrasies lend themselves to parody (Tim Heidecker’s GBV homage is heartily recommended). But however loving and/or potentially accurate they may be, such casual dismissals ignore the reality of the current renaissance blossoming in Guided by Voices’ catalog. Sparked by the return of once-and-future lead guitarist Doug Gillard, the last half-dozen records (three of which were released in 2019!) are consistently strong. Pollard’s voice has returned to form after aging into a slight croak over the Reunion Round One albums, the backing band featuring Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr., Mark Shue, and veteran drummer Kevin March is thoroughly up to the task, and hypothetical hits like “Volcano” immediately settle into their repertoire like a well worn pair of jeans. I hit a point after Please Be Honest when I needed a break, and so I had to circle back to albums like August by Cake and Space Gun (again, I could say anything here), but Surrender Your Poppy Field only serves to replenish my supply of enthusiasm for future material. (Mirrored Aztec appears to be the title of the next Guided by Voices album due in 2020.)

Do the Collapse, 1999

Guided by Voices' Do the Collapse

Upon its release in 1999, Do the Collapse was controversial in stereotypically ’90s indie ways that should have already dissipated. They left Matador! They have polished production from Ric Ocasek! The songs are angling for radio play! (A quick clarification here: GBV had signed to Capitol, who repeatedly delayed Do the Collapse, so the band moved onto large-scale indie TVT. Capitol technically owned 49% of Matador from 1996 through 1999, and Matador had a prior agreement with Atlantic to promote certain titles.) Plenty of beloved bands had made these moves by 1999, so it wasn’t like Guided by Voices were venturing into uncharted waters, but the devotion of their cult and the nature of their prior aesthetic fueled an unfair rejection of Do the Collapse. (Pitchfork gave it a 4.7.) The turn against them wasn’t as severe as Jawbreaker’s Dear You—I had a copy of Do the Collapse as a freshman in college, and saw them that November in a full club in Columbia, MO—but neither of GBV’s two TVT LPs received a proper critical assessment, let alone a full commercial breakthrough. It helped them make some new fans—“Hold on Hope” was featured on an episode of Scrubs, a Wikipedia note which does not apply to “Tractor Rape Chain”—but despite the honed hooks and power-pop sheen, it did not take over the airwaves. (1999 was an absolutely morbid time for “modern rock,” as evidenced by this chart.)

So is Do the Collapse a misunderstood classic? Not quite. The production is a strength, not a hindrance, lending smart flourishes to highlights like “Teenage FBI,” “Things I Will Keep,” “Surgical Focus,” and “Wrecking Now.” Ocasek was an inspired pick, and the ways that the vocal melodies are tightened work for Robert Pollard. The two big issues I have with Do the Collapse are 1. “Hold on Hope” is absolute treacle 2. A number of the songs suffer from ill-fitting, shoehorned sections. For instance, “Liquid Indian” has a superlative chorus and tedious verses, and whereas older Guided by Voices records might cut the verse out entirely, leaving only the good part, on Do the Collapse you’re going to hear that verse a second time. In spite of these issues, I still like Do the Collapse, perhaps because it doesn’t sound like any other record in the band’s discography, even Isolation Drills.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory, 2012

Guided by Voices' Let's Go Eat the Factory

Guided by Voices’ “classic lineup” of Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell reunited for concerts in 2010, only six years after a different lineup accompanied Pollard for the band’s “final” show on New Year’s Eve 2004 at the Metro in Chicago. (The DVD release of this four-hour, 63-song performance, The Electrifying Conclusion, came out in 2005, and is worth picking up if you don’t want to flip records every twenty minutes.) This lineup had produced the band’s most loved records, the mid-’90s trio of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under Stars (accompanied, at times, by Dan Toohey, Pollard’s brother Jim, future GBV biographer James Greer, and others—not quite The Fall, but getting there), and their return for Matador’s 21st Anniversary shindig in Vegas was significant. After the initial string of dates, Let’s Go Eat the Factory was announced, and it ended up being the first of six full-lengths from this lineup over the next three years. (B-sides from the accompanying singles account for another double-LP worth of material, some of which is, predictably, as good as songs deemed album-worthy.)

Processing the amount of material Pollard puts out in a given year is a difficult task, even in hindsight, and there’s a lingering temptation to wonder if he would have been better off holding the best songs from three albums released in a calendar year for a single album of keepers. A large part of Pollard’s appeal comes from his bewildering ability to pull perfect songs from the ether at any given moment, but his process changed over the years. The “classic era” is notable for having different tiers within his releases: for every Alien Lanes, there’s a bounty of supplemental releases that are optional for some (and essential for others). Until 1996’s Not in My Airforce, Guided by Voices was the sole receptacle for his songwriting, but after that point, numerous solo albums, side bands, and collaborations took their swigs from the bottle. In 2012, Pollard was still releasing solo albums (two that year, three the next), Circus Devils albums (two in 2013), and other material. So when I say that the six albums from the “classic lineup” reunion are spotty, there’s a clear reason why.

Even a spotty Guided by Voices album is worth my time, however, and Let’s Go Eat the Factory is no exception. “Unsinkable Fats Domino” is one of those perfect peaches plucked from the branch, Tobin Sprout comes to play with highlights “Waves” and “Spiderfighter,” and the curious “Doughnut for a Snowman” includes a surprising name-drop of “Krispy Kreme” but remains endearing. There are seventeen other songs, some of which are fragments recalling the band’s compositional approach of the mid-’90s, some of which are stiff and tuneless, and it’s awfully tempting to mentally construct a best-of double-LP from this era of the band.

King Shit and the Golden Boys, 1995/2015

Guided by Voices' King Shit and the Golden Boys

Originally included in the 1995 Box, this compilation of previously unreleased material was reissued outside of that set in 2015, allowing more listeners to hear outtakes from Bee Thousand (side two) and the earlier records (side one). The title should ring a bell as a lyric from the Under the Bushes Under the Stars classic “Don’t Stop Now,” which appears in an earlier version here. That point is significant in terms of Robert Pollard’s approach to unreleased material: sometimes a song is just waiting for the right home, or fresh ears, or different musicians. Having listened to the majority of the band’s official releases before starting on the Suitcase collections, I was amazed by how many times I’d recognize a song that had popped up ten, even twenty years after its original composition on a different record, from a different band (a few of the best Boston Spaceships [Pollard’s flagship outfit from 2008 to 2011] songs appear in demo form on a Suitcase). He never forgets or completely abandons old material, so the evolution of “Don’t Stop Now” from a buzzing, acoustic fragment to its final form as a majestic ode to the continuing spirit of his rock band makes sense. If anything, the surprise is that the evolution only took two years.

King Shit and the Golden Boys is by no means a recommended starting point. There are some keepers, of course—I’m fond of “Sopor Joe,” “Indian Was an Angel,” “Scissors,” and a rough version of live staple / contribution to Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy soundtrack “Postal Blowfish”—but the general appeal of King Shit comes from there simply being more. Some of the Bee Thousand outtakes were reinserted into the album for the 2003 Director’s Cut, but my brain rejected that tapestry being unraveled and reworked. I’d rather hear outtakes as outtakes.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed, 2004

Guided by Voices' Half Smiles of the Decomposed

As I noted when I picked up the reissue last September, there’s an amusing hype sticker on Half Smiles of the Decomposed which reads “The Final Album: The last chapter in the storied career of Robert Pollard’s merry men is another idiosyncratic rock masterpiece.” At the time, sure, they meant it, but putting that sticker on the reissue when twelve new Guided by Voices albums had appeared since its original 2004 release is a welcome bit of levity.

By no means am I begrudging the reappearance of their swan song, unsung. The last of a trio of albums marking their early ’00s return to Matador, Half Smiles of the Decomposed is an underrated title in the group’s catalog. The highs are high: the record starts off exceptionally well with effervescent pop song “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” twitchy post-punker “Sleep Over Jack,” and wistful strummer “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” and finishes remarkably well with the would-be career-closer “Huffman Prairie Flying Field.” In between those sections, however, there are some unmemorable, tired-sounding songs, with only “The Closets of Henry” standing out as a song worthy of consideration for the 100-song best-of mix I compiled sometime in 2015 (which, of course, is now woefully out of date). Most of those tracks aren’t bad, so this lack of consistency isn’t as egregious as the initial run of reunion albums. Matador Records, reissue Earthquake Glue next.

Alien Lanes, 1995

Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes

Guided by Voices had released six official full-lengths by 1993, but their list of tour dates didn’t start to accumulate until that year (the GBVDB is an exceptionally useful resource for concerts, song histories, abandoned alternate albums, and so forth). When I put on Alien Lanes, I immediately think of seeing Guided by Voices live, understandably since opener “A Salty Salute” has declared that “The club is open” at countless performances. Much has been made of James Greer’s mention that despite the album’s near six-figure advance, it’s unlikely that more than ten dollars was spent on its recording if you leave out the beer (which is frankly misleading, I wholeheartedly believe that Pollard’s spent a hundred grand on beer), but Alien Lanes sounds like a band playing live rock music in ways that Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand often did not. It teeters on mid-fi, with songs like “Closer You Are” packing a punch that most lo-fi reference points can’t muster. Propeller fantasized about performing those songs in front of adoring crowds; by Alien Lanes, it wasn’t a fantasy except for scale.

Over its 28 songs, Alien Lanes skips between off-the-cuff (yet instantly memorable) fragments and surprisingly robust songs that immediately evoke a buzzed crowd belting out every word with their fists in the air. I won’t lie: hearing “Game of Pricks” and “My Valuable Hunting Knife” here makes me immediately yearn for the re-recorded, “professional” versions on the Tigerbomb EP, and if there’s any knock against Alien Lanes vs. its “classic era” neighbors, it’s that both Bee Thousand and Under the Bushes Under the Stars offer less monochromatic production palettes. That’s a minor quibble, however, for a thoroughly enjoyable album.

Please Be Honest, 2016

Guided by Voices' Please Be Honest

Please Be Honest marked the second return of Guided by Voices, two years after Robert Pollard’s relationship with the “classic lineup” had fizzled in 2014. It’s most notable for having Pollard play every instrument on the album, which might lead one to incorrectly assume “Oh, so it’s a solo album.” But something I learned from trying to make my way through Pollard’s solo catalog before tapping out somewhere in the late ’00s is that they are solo albums in name only. Starting with 2004’s Fiction Man, producer Todd Tobias handled the instrumentation for Pollard’s solo albums (until Ricked Wicky and later Guided by Voices guitarist Nick Mitchell took over on 2016’s Of Course You Are), while Pollard handled the lyrics and vocals. It’s why there’s such a sharp drop-off in my interest in Pollard’s solo work after the initial run of Not in My Airforce, Waved Out, and Kid Marine, on which Pollard did play many of the instruments.

Please Be Honest gets at the heart of the Robert Pollard / Guided by Voices enigma: at his core, he is Guided by Voices, more than he is Robert Pollard. It is, assuredly, a Guided by Voices album, even if it is not a great Guided by Voices album. It is a better Robert Pollard album than the vast majority of his solo albums, but it is not as good of a Guided by Voices album as most of the albums featuring a capable sideman like Tobin Sprout or Doug Gillard. It’s a necessary reset of priorities, with no more solo albums, no more Ricked Wicky albums, and only one Circus Devils album appearing since its release. Robert Pollard is Guided by Voices, Guided by Voices is Robert Pollard, and Please Be Honest recognizes the primacy of that relationship. It may not be a great Guided by Voices album, but it was a necessary step to making great Guided by Voices albums again.

I listened to Please Be Honest a lot in 2016 because it’s an interesting album to get a handle on. I can’t easily picture Robert Pollard playing an instrument—there was a clip from a GBV documentary of him playing the guitar part from Kid Marine standout “Far Out Crops” on his porch which blew my mind—and yet he does all of them here. The drums are simple and skeletal. The guitars have a strange energy to them, whether they’re single-tracked acoustics or brittle electrics. There are highlights, sure—the mid-tempo strummed pop of “Kid on a Ladder” could fit on Let’s Go Eat the Factory, guitar-and-vocals-only creeper “The Quickers Arrive” would fit on a number of mid-’90s seven-inches, the yearning title track smuggles in an earworm—but as a whole, Please Be Honest feels distinct from the rest of the band’s catalog, closest in spirit to the near-solo Vampire on Titus than anything since then.

Mag Earwhig!, 1997

Guided by Voices' Mag Earwhig!

Perhaps I would have become a Guided by Voices obsessive far earlier if the first full-length I picked up wasn't Mag Earwhig!, Robert Pollard’s first Guided by Voices album after the dissolution of the “classic era” lineup. (It's not quite a clean break—Tobin Sprout gets a couple of writing credits, “Jane of the Waking Universe” is a glorious final hurrah for the previous lineup.) Mag Earwhig! is an odd mix of comparatively polished classic rock, solo vocal-and-guitar fragments, and occasional reminders of the previous three albums’ melodic indie rock. Hiring Cobra Verde as his new backing band was not wholly unfruitful for Pollard, as it started a long-term collaborative relationship with guitarist Doug Gillard, but it didn’t stick, and soon Pollard was off to find a new lineup.

To put it diplomatically, Mag Earwhig! is a less-than-ideal introduction to the band. Lead single “Bulldog Skin” is one of my least favorite Guided by Voices songs, a lunkhead rock anthem with a remedial rhyme scheme. The album’s most lasting song, “I Am a Tree,” was penned by Gillard for his previous band Gem, and while I enjoy it as a showcase for the group’s new guitarist, it's essentially a cover. Many of the full-band songs sound like a car stuck in second gear trying to go up a hill. Some of the solo snippets could correctly be dismissed as filler. Situating these two styles next to each other is far more jarring on Mag Earwhig! than on previous records.

Patient listeners will be rewarded, though. (I was not a patient listener at seventeen, and I certainly did not know the context of the album.) “Learning to Hunt” is a spectral ballad that, if memory serves, had been floating around Pollard’s brain since the ’80s (there was also an aborted 1988 album called Learning to Hunt). It’s one of my all-time favorite GBV songs. The melancholic “Sad If I Lost It” is an excellent mid-tempo rock song with deeper production values than GBV had previously employed. “I Am Produced” lasts just over a minute, but makes a complete statement in a way that few other songs here do, short or long. “Portable Men’s Society” splits the difference between meat-and-potatoes classic rock and prog-rock flourishes. The previously mentioned “Jane of the Waking Universe” could fit on a half-dozen other GBV albums and shine. And the tidy, alt-rock strut of “Mute Superstar” is surprisingly successful. Mag Earwhig! isn’t a complete disaster, but one of Pollard’s contemporaneous solo albums would offer a more consistent, rewarding listen.

Warp and Woof, 2019

Guided by Voices' Warp and Woof

The second of Guided by Voices’ three full-lengths from 2019 (Robert Pollard would be the first one to remind you that Zeppelin Over China was a double album), Warp and Woof grabbed me in a way that the half-dozen albums which preceded it did not. Most likely my brain had finally recovered from the massive dosage of Pollard compositions from 2015 to 2016 and was simply ready to give a new Guided by Voices album a proper listen. I’ve done similar deep dives with other artists, and while I generally believe that immersion in an artist’s catalog is beneficial, encouraging connections between songs, between albums, there’s usually a point when my capacity to process additional material shuts down. When I fully committed to The Fall a few years ago, it happened during their early ’00s albums, and I recognized that continuing would be a disservice to the remaining albums. I will listen to those albums at some point, just like I circled back to all of the post-Please Be Honest GBV albums last year, and hopefully I’ll enjoy those later Fall albums as much as the recent GBV releases.

Putting aside whether my initial appreciation of Warp and Woof had as much to do with timing as anything else, there’s another clear reason why it worked for me: the songs are all short. 24 songs in 38 minutes! Only two songs top two minutes! The benefit of this approach is most apparent in “Dead Liquor Store,” a song I enjoy except for one tremendously irritating section. That section lasts a whopping twelve seconds and does not repeat! Who cares! Not every song on Warp and Woof is as compelling as “Angelic Weirdness” or “Mumbling Amens,” but the return to the classic era’s penchant for brevity is welcome.

Under the Bushes Under the Stars, 1996

Guided by Voices' Under the Bushes Under the Stars

Similar to Frank Black’s 22-song Teenager of the Year, it took me longer to get into Under the Bushes Under the Stars because there’s simply so much to hear. Teenager didn’t click as a whole until I started listening to its second half as a separate album, and so I tried the same approach with UTBUTS (a time-saving acronym, yes, but also quite enjoyable to say), and it worked wonders. It also helped that many of my favorite songs here—“Don’t Stop Now,” “Office of Hearts,” “Big Boring Wedding,” “Redmen and Their Wives”—appear in the home stretch. If UTBUTS isn’t my favorite GBV, it’s a close second to Bee Thousand. It depends on the day and which album I played most recently.

Given that status, it is interesting how much Pollard and company struggled with recording this material. There are numerous drafts of this era of material with alternate titles like The Power of Suck (when Pollard envisioned it as a concept album about a band dealing with unexpected adulation and the temptation to sell out, with “Don’t Stop Now” as its closer), and the final version credits four producers including Steve Albini and Kim Deal. In contrast to the nonexistent recording budget for Alien Lanes, UTBUTS brought the group to 24-track studios for the first time. Even after the album was ready for release, there were still doubts about its track listing, with the final six tracks (conceived of as a separate EP) not listed on the back cover. It’s clear that Pollard felt the tremendous pressure to succeed, which drove both the material (even after the concept album was abandoned) and the logistical decisions. While this pressure surely contributed to the end of the “classic lineup,” it’s hard to argue with the end product.

Tigerbomb EP, 1995

Guided by Voices' Tigerbomb EP

It’s exceptionally rare that a re-recorded song will improve upon the original. In most cases, it feels like an admission of defeat—the label doesn’t believe we can write anything as good as a song from our last album—so even when the new version is passable, like Shudder to Think’s polished take on “Red House” on 50,000 B.C. (their third version of a song that originally appeared six years earlier on 1991’s Funeral at the Movies), I can’t help but wonder whether it needs to exist. Guided by Voices did it a couple of times in this era, with a single mix for “Motor Away” that failed to improve on the Alien Lanes original, but they hit it out of the park with new versions of “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and “Game of Pricks” (a top-five GBV song by any measure). I don’t know if they got any grief for this move at the time—anecdotal evidence suggests most people prefer the Tigerbomb versions—but I suspect the impetus for new versions came as much from Robert Pollard as Matador Records. He knew those songs could sound bigger, could sound bolder (the more important distinction), and there’s an energy to the new takes, especially on “Game of Pricks” that’s enthralling.

Of course, given that it’s Guided by Voices in 1995, there are four other songs on this seven-inch, with two notable tracks to mention. “Mice Feel Nice (In My Room)” features the first appearance of future mainstay Doug Gillard on guitar, while Tobin Sprout’s “Dodging Invisible Rays” is every bit as good as his stellar contributions to Under the Bushes Under the Stars. I'm generally reluctant to play the "Why didn't this make the album?" card but it stands to reason here.

Guided by Voices' Get Out of My Stations EP

Get Out of My Stations EP, 1994

I’m not a completist for Guided by Voices’ seven-inch singles by any means (that’s practically a full-time job), but during the early-to-mid ’90s, the band had a welcome penchant for putting only non-album material on their singles, so I’ll pick such titles up when I find them at reasonable prices, which I’ve been fortunate to do at stores like Mystery Train and Amoeba. (With few exceptions, this EP-only trend went away in the late ’90s and did not come back, and no I’m not going to collect all of the first reunion era singles with one or two b-sides on each, let alone indulge the band’s new habit of releasing its new albums over four seven-inches.) The band had a seemingly infinite supply of short, occasionally inspired songs that sound like they were recorded in a basement bathroom by a mic on the first floor. (That supply was furnished by years upon years of low-stakes home recording during weekend hangs with his friends/band.) If Guided by Voices ever truly earned the lo-fi label, it was on these singles.

Get Out of My Stations features seven tracks “recorded by Tobin Sprout in the Snake Pit,” although unless Robert Pollard had an infestation, that's just his basement. The two keepers are on the b-side: the languid strummer “Dusty Bushworms” offers a lovely chorus melody, while the delicate “Spring Tiger” uses two of its four tracks on carefully arranged vocals. If you’re in the mood for a flight of fancy that could have been written as it was being recorded, the British Invasion play “Melted Pat” will hit the spot.

The Grand Hour EP, 1993

Guided by Voices' The Grand Hour EP

This early Guided by Voices EP features an actual classic in “Shocker in Gloomtown,” a charging, drum-led crowd-pleaser that remains in their sets today. It was later covered by The Breeders on the Head to Toe EP (peep the video with GBV peering in on The Breeders), alongside a rendition of Sebadoh’s “Freed Pig.” Kim Deal’s later band The Amps covered Guided by Voices’ as-then unreleased “I Am Decided” on their lone, highly recommended 1995 album Pacer as part of an arrangement for Deal’s production services on Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

The Grand Hour is also noteworthy for featuring the title tracks for their next two albums, “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes,” and if you are wondering whether these songs should have been saved for their namesake LPs, no, dear reader, it’s a clear no. “Alien Lanes” is a noisy (well, noisier) garage-punk headache, while “Bee Thousand” alternates between a half-baked song and a “Wubba-wubba-wubba” sing-a-long that my dog did not understand in the slightest.

Plantations of Pale Pink EP, 1996

Guided by Voices' Plantations of Pale Pink

Plantations of Pale Pink bears a few interesting distinctions from the previous two EPs: it came out on Matador instead of a much smaller indie label (skimming through Discogs, it seems like any label that wanted a piece of Guided by Voices in 1993 or 1994 got something to release); it’s chronologically tied to Under the Bushes Under the Stars, an album which produced no shortage of non-album material; and it flirts with mid-fi production values at times. Most of the songs appeared on earlier drafts of UTBUTS (as listed on GBVDB), although oddly not the EP’s best track, “The Who Vs. Porky Pig,” which could have easily possessed a different title until Pollard came up with that gem. “Subtle Gear Shifting” is close to a keeper but the pulsing guitar part going in and out of phase with the rest of the song made me leave the room for a minute.

There are plenty of blogs devoted to covering every piece of Guided by Voices ephemera in detail, and while I appreciate their commitment and read countless posts when I initially ran through all of the singles, I can’t quite muster their level of enthusiasm for Pollard’s outtakes (of outtakes of outtakes of outtakes). Yes, Plantations of Pale Pink holds together reasonable well as a piece, and yes, there are a couple of songs that stand out, but aside from Tigerbomb, I only find myself putting on the EPs if I’m specifically playing the EPs. I’ll always reach for an album first.

Bee Thousand, 1994

Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand

I was exceptionally lucky to grab both Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes on vinyl from Parasol Records in Urbana when I did; Parasol never had many used LPs for sale, and whoever priced those records at five dollars apiece did me an exceptional favor. I bought them when CD was still my default format (the full switch to vinyl occurred a few years later), and I’m not sure if I would’ve appreciated these albums in the same way if they’d been on CD. I might have been tempted to skip around to the crowd-pleasers, to play “Gold Star for Robot Boy” a couple of times in a row before switching to another disc, like I did with the inconsistent Mag Earwhig!. To repeat common wisdom, Bee Thousand works as a whole far better than individual parts, many of which are thoroughly odd when removed from the precise tapestry of the album.

That isn’t a new or profound insight. The 33 1/3 on Bee Thousand even mimics the album’s woven-together fragments for its approach (the end results do not match; that book is more tedious than ingenious). But it’s interesting hearing Bee Thousand after playing its outtakes on King Shit and the Golden Boys and a few of the early ’90s singles (with the distant buzz from the first Suitcase echoing in the back of my mind). Maybe the next level of Guided by Voices obsession is being able to mentally substitute in songs from the back half of King Shit for “Demons Are Real” and understand how that would ripple through the rest of the album, a kind of armchair GMing for a band's catalog. (Pollard did throw a no-hitter, after all.) I don’t suspect I’ll ever reach that point, especially considering how much the Director’s Cut of Bee Thousand bugged me. I appreciate the editorial acumen of the original version too much. It’s true that some deep-cut b-sides are better than songs that made Guided by Voices’ big albums (Deeming “Shocker in Gloomtown” better than “Demons Are Real” doesn't feel like a hot take), but being able to recognize the right songs, when you have that many songs to choose from, is a far more impressive skill than just sifting out the gold.

Isolation Drills, 2001

Guided by Voices' Isolation Drills

The second and final album from Guided by Voices’ brief tenure on TVT (a label I foremost associate with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and I'm giggling from the thought of a GBV cover of "Terrible Lie"), Isolation Drills brought the production values back down to earth after Do the Collapse’s perceived new wave / Big Rock excess. Employing Rob Schnapf, best known for his work on Elliott Smith’s records, Robert Pollard found a level of polished rock production more attuned to his liking. Schnapf even recruited Smith to play piano on the album’s penultimate track, “Fine to See You,” one of several tastefully applied supplements (the Soldier String Quartet returns from Do the Collapse, longtime friend Tobin Sprout plays piano on “How’s My Drinking,” and future producer/“solo” collaboration Todd Tobias adds “noises”). It’s an immediate, satisfying sound, although the readily available demos for this album, recorded at Dayton’s Cro-Magnon Studios, might appeal more to some longtime fans.

Isolation Drills holds a different status with me than many of the Guided by Voices full-lengths I’ve played today. It falls a touch short of the unimpeachable classic territory of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars, but it’s excellent through and through, escaping the inconsistency that dings many of their post-UTBUTS LPs. It’s a focused rock record with only a couple songs falling under three minutes. There are clear highlights—“Glad Girls” is an enthusiastic sing-a-long, the melody of “Chasing Heather Crazy” is infectious, “Twilight Campfighter” hangs in a wistful breeze—but the rest of the songs keep pace. Consistency is a strange concept in Robert Pollard’s world. I wanted to hear all six of the initial reunion records, even if most of them are noticeably spotty, because I knew Pollard (and Sprout) would divvy out a few gems on each one. There was a consistent reward to those albums and some of his later solo records, even if the records themselves do not offer a consistent level of quality. I’ll gladly take the middling material if it means I get a “White Flag” on The Bears for Lunch. In a weird way, I engage more immediately with those albums than Isolation Drills or the most recent half-dozen LPs, which maintain a baseline level of quality in a way that doesn’t showcase the gems as clearly. With a spotty record, my ears perk up when a great song pokes it head out of the brush. It takes me longer to fully appreciate a consistently solid Guided by Voices album.

Guided by Voices' Space Gun

Space Gun, 2018

I could fit one more Guided by Voices album in today, and even with thirteen LPs and four singles down, I still had plenty of options. My main goal was to play the classics and represent the different eras that could be represented (apologies to the pre-Propeller years: my quick take on those records is that hearing GBV start off as R.E.M. college rock on 1986’s Forever Since Breakfast was a surprise, the next couple of albums had their “finding our way” charms and some muffled keepers mixed in, and I found Same Place the Fly Got Smashed to be better in theory than execution, a point of disagreement in my email chain with Scott, a staunch proponent of that album), and having done that, the last couple of albums I pulled were simply ones I wanted to hear. Space Gun feels like the right choice: Scott gave me a copy of it for my birthday last year and, like Isolation Drills, it doesn’t fuck around.

Perhaps this sense comes from having already played 273 Guided by Voices songs before throwing it on, but Space Gun is an often hilarious album. There’s an ecstatic silliness to the opening title track, in which Robert Pollard insists “You are Space Gun!” over Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr.’s lava-flow riffage, so ecstatic that they run by the four-minute mark without me even noticing. “Colonel Paper” offers the nonchalant “Cigarette eater / Eat a cigarette, man.” “Blink Blank” is positively loopy, with utterances like “I lost an umbrella / Looking for you in a shit storm,” “Experts are pondering a lost monocle,” and “Gonesville station / It’s Zonksville nation” building up to “I’m going blink blank / In a shit storm.” I previously mentioned how ripe Pollard’s poetic reverie is for parody, but I don’t think that finding these songs funny is dismissing their merits. They are funny, just like “Learning to Hunt” and “Things I Will Keep” are profound and wistful, just like “Game of Pricks” is defiant.

Self-Quarantining with Seven-Inches, Volume Two

Given the overwhelming success—I finished and posted it, which counts as success in my book—of my previous entry of the Social Distancing Singles Club and the arrival of six reinforcements from Reckless Records in Chicago and my recent reorganization of my seven boxes of singles and the lack of any specific plans for today or any day in the foreseeable future, I’m having another go at listening to and writing about a tall stack of seven-inch singles in one day. Today the number is twenty-five. As the saying goes, “not all heroes wear capes.” I could wear a cape right now though, I’m sure it would amuse my kids.

Emeralds / Fresh Air, Soundesign, 2009

Emeralds' Fresh Air

The Cleveland-based electronic trio Emeralds compiled quite an interesting discography, in which they put five “proper” albums (including the logical starting point for newcomers, 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here) and approximately a million supplemental releases (a closet full of cassettes, splits, EPs, and singles) more typical of a noise act. Their set-up—arpeggiated synths, analog synths, and guitar—allowed for plenty of room for exploration, with tracks ranging from concise and melodic songs (“Candy Shoppe”) to driving arpeggiated material (some of the soundtrack to Stranger Things is incredibly close to Emeralds’ territory) to drifting, pastoral soundscapes. And yet I’ve largely stuck with Emeralds’ major releases or its members’ solo works (Mark McGuire’s Get Lost and Steve Hauschildt’s Tragedy and Geometry in particular) without diving into that vast amount of additional material. This single is a toe-dip, but a promising one; the first untitled song is in the melodic vein and a superlative way to start my day, and the flip is less structured but no less inviting.

Rafael Anton Irisarri / “Hopes and Past Desires” b/w “Watching as She Reels,” Immune, 2009

Rafael Anton Irisarri's 'Hopes and Past Desires'

My initial exposure to Rafael Anton Irisarri was through a few of his collaborative ventures: in 2012 he teamed with Benoît Pioulard as Orcas, and “I Saw My Echo” was a showstopper on their self-titled debut (I need to spend more time with 2014’s Yearning), and in 2017 he worked with Julianna Barwick on Thesis 10, a four-song EP that scans very much as “Would you like to hear Julianna Barwick with processed synths behind her vocal loops?” (unsurprisingly, the answer is “yes”). I saw this single as I flipped through Reckless’s digital catalog of seven-inches and ordered both it and his 2019 album, Solastalgia (which appears to need a second pressing). The b-side of the single, “Watching as She Reels,” is particularly great; Irisarri elevates an already compelling combination of muted synths and piano with an extraordinarily affecting cello performance. As you would expect from a ten-year jump in his catalog, Solastalgia occupies a different space, somewhat reminiscent of mid-period Tim Hecker (Harmony in Ultraviolet and An Imaginary Country), but darker and more introspective.

Les Savy Fav / “Hold onto Your Genre” b/w “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin,” Monitor, 2004

Les Savy Fav's 'Hold onto Your Genre' b/w 'Meet Me in the Dollar Bin'

Les Savy Fav evaporated a year or two after their 2010 album Root for Ruin (its songs sounded better live, but don’t they all), with Seth Jabour and Syd Butler joining Girls Against Boys’ Eli Janney in the band for Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2014. (You might think that having those musicians and adding Marnie Stern a few years later would make the show appointment viewing for me, but sleep wins out, time and time again.) They played a couple of shows around the beginning of 2019 and I wondered if anything new would come out of them, but so far, nothing major. Not the best time for a reunion tour, but here’s an idea: put Inches out as a 2LP set. The compilation of nine seven-inch singles originally came out in 2004 as a CD/DVD combo, and featured many of Les Savy Fav’s best songs, including the two on this particular single. It’s true that some of the singles are not hard to come by, but the ones with the best songs, like “We’ll Make a Lover Out of You,” “The Sweat Descends,” and “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin,” are not found in the dollar bin. (I was amused that the sides on my copy of this single were mislabeled, with “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin” playing as the a-side, which is how it should have been anyway.) Reissue this material, throw in the DVD if you so desire, tour when/if the world comes back to normal.

The Karl Hendricks Trio & Mothra / Hooked on Hobbit, Egg Yolk, 1994

The Karl Hendricks Trio / Mothra split

I have plenty of memorably strange seven-inch sleeves, but this split single marked the first time that the record was housed in a fuzzy-textured shirt with a Velcro catch. I’ll buy any vinyl I find from the dearly departed Karl Hendricks, the Pittsburgh indie rocker whose casually scorching leads and humorously confessional lyrics appear on, by my count, nine albums and nine singles, not all of which made it to vinyl. (My personal favorite, 2003’s The Jerks Win Again, was CD-only.) Hendricks also played bass for Damon Che’s Thee Speaking Canaries on The Joy of Wine and Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged, endearingly idiosyncratic and hard-hitting collisions of math-rock and Van Halen cosplay. This particular single is what the kids refer to as a “deep cut,” with Hendricks’ “Catch the Wind” chalking up as a ramshackle, buzzed tale that was smartly kept off of one of his albums. I was previously unfamiliar with Mothra, but judging by their Discogs page, the sleeve design is more in their wheelhouse, with their lone single packaged in red felt and their only full-length album coming in a CD “box.” It would’ve been nice if their sound had been related to the beloved Rodan, but instead it’s fairly nondescript, flanger-heavy indie/alternative rock from the early ’90s.

Pissed Jeans / “Sam Kinison Woman” b/w “L Word,” Sub Pop, 2010

Pissed Jeans' 'Sam Kinison Woman' b/w 'L Word'

I don’t have a great excuse for taking this long to get into Pissed Jeans (long, unbroken stare after typing that phrase), but my gateway for their sludgy, hardcore-derived rock was the band’s hysterically funny videos for “The Bar Is Low,” “Romanticize Me,” and “Bathroom Laughter.” Some bands have inventively humorous videos and dead-serious music, but Pissed Jeans thrive on the juxtaposition between the stereotypically masculine profile of their music and Matt Corvette’s lyrics, which undercut every angle of such perceived bro-posturing with self-deflating commentary and/or willful stupidity. Case in point is the b-side of this single, “The L Word,” a forceful trudge of a song with the lyrics “Love is a word I use to describe / The way I feel inside / I love this pie / I love a good surprise / I love Velvet Sky / I love the Flyers.” It ruminates on those thoughts for six minutes, although according to this informative Facebook post that dives into the song, somewhere there’s a CD-R with a version that goes on for thirteen minutes. I also ordered a copy of the band’s fourth album, Honeys. Corvette runs a monthly music blog called Yellow Green Red that is an excellent read, support your local blogger.

Zach Galifianakis & Ted Leo and the Pharmacists / “Up in Them Guts” b/w “Rock N Roll Dreams'll Come Through,” Chunklet, 2008

Zach Galifianakis / Ted Leo split single

A few years before he broke out in the mainstream with 2009’s The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis released this comedy rap song, which is somehow way, way dumber (and more enjoyable) than even the stock “My name’s So-and-So and I’m here to say / I love rap music in a major way” default. Every aspect of the song is remedial, and yet Fiona Apple appears to drop the hook in the chorus (“If you show me your fanny pack, I’ll show you my fanny”) and the list of call-outs in the outro, returning the favor of Galifianakis appearing in her video for “Not About Love.” (I return to Galifianakis and Will Oldham’s video for Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” once a year and it always delivers.) Chunklet pressed the song, along with a Best Show-related Ted Leo and the Pharmacists track, on a seven-inch in 2008, and I got the “hardcore” cover edition. Ted Leo’s song on the flip side, “Rock N Roll Dreams’ll Come True,” is an excellent, catchy dose of the power pop you’d expect from Leo, although it’s actually written by Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster and originally performed by the Gas Station Dogs on WMFU’s The Best Show. Coming after “Up in Them Guts,” it also serves as a necessary mental reset on what music usually sounds like. Fiona Apple sadly does not appear on it.

Paul Newman / ...Please Wait During the Silence, Twistworthy, 1997

Paul Newman's ...Please Wait During the Silence

Paul Newman was a primarily instrumental band from Austin with two bassists, one of whom named Paul Newman (no, not that Paul Newman), who played a mix of math- and post-rock, with occasional touches of post-hardcore and emo. This 1997 single was their first release and the liner lists their shows to date, all of which were in Texas, only one of which was at a wedding reception. They hadn’t quite found their sound yet—when I learned that a friend once dated Paul Newman of Paul Newman, I asked her if he lived in a chorus pedal factory—and “Clear Baby” goes heavy on the ’90s emo semi-screamed vocals. They released two albums on Trance Syndicate Records, both of which I have on CD somewhere, one album on My Pal God that I own on vinyl, and a final album in 2005 on Emperor Jones that I don’t recall having heard. This particular single was included on a 2001 My Pal God CD compilation of the band’s non-album work called Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the Songs , which also featured “Way to Breathe, No-Breath,” their contribution to a great split single with the band Sonna in which they each played the same song in their respective styles. Drummer Tony Nozero also played in the band Drums and Tuba, bassist Edward Robert is also in I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, and guitarist Craig McCaffrey designed the sleeves for a ton of Kranky Records releases.

Light's 'Turning' b/w 'Presence'

Light / “Turning” b/w “Presence,” Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1995

I was unfamiliar with the UK-based space-rock / drone artist Light until coming across his 1996 LP Turning at Chicago’s Dusty Groove Records a few years ago, but there were enough signifiers that it would be of interest to me (came out on Wurlitzer Jukebox, the cover looks like something from Kranky Records, related to Flying Saucer Attack) that I took a chance and picked it up, finding this single shortly after at Reckless. It’s interesting that “Turning” does not appear on the album Turning, but “Presence” is the better song anyway, reminiscent of Windy & Carl’s drones with an addition of rhythmic textures. He released two other albums and two additional singles, none of which I’m particularly compelled to track down, but would buy on the cheap if I encounter them in a discount bin.

Colin Newman / “B”+ 2, Beggars Banquet, 1980

Colin Newman's 'B' + 2

Oh to have been a fly on the wall in a meeting between Beggars Banquet and Colin Newman in 1980 when they were discussing which song to release as the single from his post-Wire solo debut, A–Z. That album is not always easy listening, a trait I suspect was quite intentional, and despite some logical choices in “& Jury” (one of my favorite songs ever), “I’ve Waited Ages,” and “Order for Order,” the album was preceded by “B,” an atonal, if weirdly catch near-instrumental track, interrupted only by wordless screams. Furthermore, it was accompanied by the bizarre video for “B,” which has costumed anti-performances. While I strongly believe the album would have gotten more commercial success if “& Jury” had been the lead single, there’s an interesting trade-off at play. “& Jury” is more straightforward than the rest of A–Z, while “B” tempers expectations for the melodic post-punk that Newman delivered in Wire, framing the album as a standoffish art-rock statement. And while the end result is somewhere in between those two poles, listeners hoping for ten more songs like “& Jury” would have been headed for disappointment. This single features two b-sides: the lurching “The Classic Remains” and “Alone on Piano,” a stripped-down rendering of the haunting track that would later appear in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.

Electro Group / “Line of Sight” b/w “All Star,” Omnibus, 2000

Electro Group's 'Line of Sight' b/w 'All Star'

I absolutely bought this single at Parasol Records because of its packaging, which slid marbled blue vinyl into a cloth bag with a button on it. I’d never seen a sleeve quite like it, and the fact that I ultimately enjoyed the music still comes a distant second to “Oh that’s the single with the cloth bag!” in my memory banks. Electro Group hailed from Sacramento and played a heavy form of American shoegaze, reminiscent of the Swirlies, All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, Lilys’ In the Presence of Nothing, and of course My Bloody Valentine, with feminine-inflected vocals and more prominent bass than most other groups in the genre. I have their 1998 debut single, “Lifter” b/w “Green Machine,” and their 2000 debut LP, A New Pacifica, on vinyl, but was unaware that they returned in 2017 with the album Ranger. Revisiting “Line of Sight” and “Allstar” (mercifully not the Smashmouth song that haunts me), I’m gently encouraged to spend some time with those other two records in my collection and see how they developed later.

Dot Allison / “Colour Me” b/w “Tomorrow Never Comes,” Sub Pop, 1999

Dot Allison's 'Colour Me' b/w 'Tomorrow Never Comes'

I heard Dot Allison because of Arab Strap’s remix of “Message Personnel” from her 1999 solo debut Afterglow, which stretched the song out to nearly seven minutes with slide guitar and meditative vocal layering. (It was good enough to be included as a bonus track on the regular pressing.) I was unfamiliar with her past in the UK electronic group One Dove, which came up recently when their producer, noted electronic mogul Andrew Weatherall, passed away. As for her solo work, I only know Afterglow (its first two songs are included on this Sub Pop single, perhaps as a way to expand her audience) and its 2002 follow-up, We Are Science, which took a chillier, more explicitly electronic approach to the production (although Mercury Rev apparently helped produce a few tracks). “Colour Me” is closer to what I remember of Afterglow in its late-stage trip-hop trappings, while “Tomorrow Never Comes” is a sometimes compelling, sometimes off-putting combination of bland adult contemporary pop, alt-country, and folk.

Benoît Pioulard / Flocks, Blue Flea, 2009

Benoît Pioulard's Flocks

I recently picked up a different Benoît Pioulard single from Encore Records and had a conversation about the Michigan native’s catalog, which is ever-expanding and a touch overwhelming. His 2006 debut Précis was one of my favorite albums from that year, a surprisingly melodic combination of hushed folk, slow-core indie rock, and texturally rich post-rock. I initially tried keeping up with his output, but like Emeralds, there’s an a-path of major releases and a b-path of minor releases, and I found myself lagging behind by 2010’s Lasted. He keeps releasing albums, I keep hearing about them and thinking “I should check that out,” but two things typically diminish my momentum. First, the hooks of Précis don’t pop up often enough; second, I always suspect I’m missing out on the release that would properly pull me back in. Adding to this conundrum is how, when I have picked up a single like Flocks (which I fittingly got at Stormy Records a few years ago, given that it was released on Windy & Carl’s label Blue Flea), I’m happy to revisit his sound. Half of Flocks is more structured than some of his later full-lengths, with the a-side “Maginot” offering both a nice vocal melody and a neat harmonic line before its droning outro, while the b-side “Alaskan Lashes” is a formless instrumental. More of the former, please.

Sonna / “Kept Luminesce” b/w “Mirameko,” Static Caravan, 2000

Sonna's 'Kept Luminesce' b/w 'Mirameko'

Sonna was a Baltimore-based post-rock band, whose members included guitarist Jeremy DeVine (the proprietor of Temporary Residence Limited, the label which released most of the band’s music) and drummer Jim Redd (who later joined Tarentel). I don’t know if I first heard them from their split single with Paul Newman, on which they performed a slower, lush take on “Way to Breathe, No-Breath,” or their 1999 EP These Windows Are Pistons (the opening song of which is tremendously evocative of lightly falling snow), but I later picked up their 2001 LP We Sing Loud Sing Soft Tonight and this single. “Kept Luminesce” is halfway between a crescendo-free post-rock song and the lighter pop touches of The Sea and Cake, with the vocals residing in Sam Prekop’s restrained register as the drums shuffle briskly underneath. “Mirameko” is an instrumental with intertwined, mostly clean guitar lines, masticating on melodic phrases. It wasn’t long after I picked up and enjoyed this single that Temporary Residence included it on the 2016 non-album material compilation Keep It Together.

Jud Jud / X The Demos X, No Idea, 1997/2007

Jud Jud's X The Demos X

Two anecdotes about this single from storied a cappella hardcore duo Jud Jud: First, if you’re a new visitor to my house and you are unfamiliar with the storied a cappella hardcore duo Jud Jud (and not an elderly relative), there is exceptionally strong chance that I will play the entirety of this single before you leave. Look, that’s the deal. Second, when I moved from Massachusetts to Michigan last summer, I did that drive three times in a little over a week and a half (drove sixteen-foot rental truck, flew back, drove my car and the pets, flew back, drove my wife’s car). In order to maintain consciousness / sanity while driving, I made an extraordinarily long playlist to put on shuffle. At the time I meant to write about that experience and that playlist, but in hindsight, I was too busy driving from Massachusetts to Michigan to write about what music I listened to while driving from Massachusetts to Michigan. The biggest take-away from the playlist was clear, though. Any time that a Jud Jud song came up, it brightened my mood. Just a sheer delight to be driving through western New York and have “X Rounds of Jud Song X” come on.

Season to Risk / “Mine Eyes” b/w “Why See Straight,” Columbia, 1993

Season to Risk's 'Mine Eyes' b/w 'Why See Straight'

Allen Epley of Shiner / The Life and Times has a podcast called Third Gear Scratch in which he talks with artists (primarily musicians) about their work and lives, and one of the more interesting episodes for me was his talk with Steve Tulipana of Season to Risk. Not only because it addressed how Shiner essentially used Season to Risk as a farm team for new members (most notably Paul Malinowski and Tim Dow, but Josh Newton and Jason Gerkin also played in S2R), a point of discussion which was more cordial than expected, but also because Season to Risk is one of the more baffling acts to get a major-label deal. They are not, to say the least, listener-friendly. Their 1993 self-titled debut, on which both of these songs appear, nudges the grinding, atonal rock of The Jesus Lizard and Helmet a step closer to Headbanger’s Ball, but as much as Epley enjoyed doing the “Mine Eyes” vocal on the podcast, they are not a particularly catchy band. Their sophomore record, 1995’s In a Perfect World, is merciless and pummeling to a degree that few records in my collection match, and it’s exponentially more interesting to me than their debut. Absolute commercial suicide, though. I haven’t played Men Are Monkeys. Robots Win. or The Shattering in ages, but I recall them having at least a few shreds of melody in the mix.

Bob Mould / “Classifieds” b/w “Moving Trucks,” Creation, 1998

Bob Mould's 'Classifieds' b/w 'Moving Trucks'

I saw Bob Mould for the first time last fall when he played at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and in advance of the show, I read his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody and did a little catch-up on his more recent solo work. The book was a mostly compelling look into his upbringing, the formation of Hüsker Dü, his interpersonal disagreements with various band members, his long-term relationships, and the gradual evolution of his personality (when it happened, Bob Mould Club DJ and Electronic Artist was a surprise, but there was a build-up to it in his life). The show was solid: he played a lot of his newer solo stuff, some Hüsker Dü material, a scant few Sugar songs; his signature guitar tone was largely at odds with the vaunted acoustics of the venue; it was nice to be one of the younger audience members for once. The solo album which sourced this double a-side single was 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show, which at the time was promised to be his final guitar album (Narrator: “It was not”). At the time I loved Sugar’s catalog but hadn’t heard any of Mould’s prior solo work, and in hindsight, that’s probably for the best, since this was his most direct line back to Sugar at the time. These two songs, along with “New #1” and “Skintrade,” were the highlights of the album.

At the Drive-In & Burning Airlines / “Catacomb” b/w “The Deluxe War Baby,” Thick, 2000

At the Drive-In / Burning Airlines split

Thick Records was a Chicago-based independent label that put out a lot of picture-disc seven-inches, typically skewing more punk than my usual tastes. I picked up a handful of these singles over the years (Edsel’s “Perched Like a Parasite” is the next one that comes to mind), but none were quite as anticipated as this Burning Airlines / At the Drive-In single from 2000. At the time, Burning Airlines had put out the front-to-back great Mission: Control!, and (if memory serves) ATDI hadn’t yet released Relationship of Command, which would follow later in the year. I was, and still am, far more interested in Burning Airlines’ “The Deluxe War Baby” than At the Drive-In’s “Catacomb,” even though the hype for ATDI at the time was overwhelming. (I remember a friend writing a glowing review of In/Casino/Out for my online magazine Signal Drench.) “The Deluxe War Baby” reappeared on 2001’s Identikit, where its vaguely country-ish lead still thrilled, while ATDI re-recorded their song as "Catacombs" as a Japanese bonus track for Relationship of Command. When At the Drive-In blew up, I assumed this single would be hard to come by in the future, but copies remain relatively inexpensive.

Füxa & Bright / “City & Metro” b/w “How I Reached Home,” Darla, 1997

Füxa & Bright split single

This split single features two aesthetically dissimilar artists from the Darla Records stable. The two-piece Füxa hails from Detroit, playing experimental, mostly electronic music that exists somewhere between Stereolab’s retro-futurism, Windy & Carl’s pastoral drones, and Spacemen 3’s narcotic psych-rock. I have a couple of other scattered releases from their considerable discography, most notably their entry into Darla’s Bliss Out series (1997’s Venoy). Their contribution here, “City and Metro,” starts off like an instrumental Stereolab outtake, and then moves into darker noise in its second half. The Emeralds of the ’90s? Bright was a guitar-rock band from Brooklyn, channeling some amount of Kraut-rock in their hypnotic approach to repetition. They also made a Bliss Out record, Blue Christian in 1997, but aside from another single of theirs that I have (which is in a blue poly sleeve, as opposed to the pink one found here), I’ve spent the most time with their 2005 swan song Bells Break Their Towers, which has a couple of extended, ten-plus-minute-long tracks that leaned into their best tendencies. Their leader, Mark Dwinell, is now a member of the Kranky Records band Forma, whom I had already meant to check out and now will actually check out.

Shannon Wright / “A Tin Crown for the Social Bash” b/w “You're the Cup,” All City Hobo, 1998

Shannon Wright's 'A Tin Crown for the Social Bash

I finally got to see Shannon Wright perform a few years ago when she opened up for Shellac in Providence. Her tours, along with her vinyl releases, primarily occur in Europe these days, and I’m not sure if that trend started before or after her 2004 collaborative record with French musician / composer Yann Tiersen, but it’s a shame American audiences don’t appreciate her more. Her evolution from the nondescript indie rock of her ’90s band Crowsdell (I have a few of their releases and they’ve never registered) to the slightly askew acoustic compositions of her earliest solo days (which include these songs) to the increasingly intense and experimental Days of Tacit and Dyed in the Wool to the alternately thrashing and delicate Over the Sun was a tremendous arc, and I would be making a huge mistake to dismiss her more recent work as less essential. (One of my record store regrets is passing on the original vinyl pressing of 2007’s Let in the Light in a store in Milan, in hindsight that was the obvious place to get it.) Last year I picked up a copy of her solo debut Flightsafety on vinyl and two thoughts prevailed from a recent spin: first, the opening “Floor Pile” remains astounding, one of her best songs; second, hearing the word “quarantine” repeating a ton in “Captain of Quarantine” has taken a decidedly different resonance.

Boy's Life & Giants Chair / “Worn Thin” b/w “Ever Present,” HitIt!, 1995

Boy's Life / Giants Chair

This split single is a battle of the “Is there an apostrophe in this name or what?” bands, and the fact that Boys Life appear on this single as “Boy’s Life” and as “Boys Life” on all of their other official releases causes me no small amount of consternation. They win the battle, not through the apostrophe-insertion trickery, but by virtue of “Worn Thin” possessing greater dynamic range than Giants Chair’s “Ever Present.” (Important note: the Shiner song on Starless is called “Giant’s Chair,” with an apostrophe.) Their command of the transitions between intense, tricky Midwestern rock and cavernous empty space is the most striking aspect of their 1996 LP Departures and Landfalls (reissued on vinyl by Topshelf in 2015), and you get enough of a taste of it here. “Ever Present” is a solid, gear-churning Giants Chair song, just not quite up to the nod-inducing “Single File Accident” from 1996’s Purity and Control. Giants Chair got back together in the last few years and put out Prefabylon last year, which I will listen to at some point, I swear.

Girls Against Boys & Stanton-Miranda / “She's Lost Control” b/w “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Virgin, 1995

Girls Against Boys / Stanton

I heard Girls Against Boys’ cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” in roughly the same time-frame as the original, having picked up both A Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division (the tribute compilation on which both sides of this single appear) and Permanent (Joy Division’s 1995 greatest-hits compilation) midway through high school. As far as applying your own aesthetic to a cover, GVSB’s “She’s Lost Control” is a triumph, beefing up the clicking rhythm section of the original with the group’s signature two-bass assault and Alexis Fleisig’s pummeling drums. (Said it before, will say it again: he’s one of the most underrated drummers.) I won’t deny that it loses some of the haunting resonance of the original, but it’s a different take. Stanton-Miranda’s cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is less successful, as her smoothly melodic vocals disarm the composition of its tension. I recently saw Stanton-Miranda’s name in the credits for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (The Feelies play a high school reunion!) and learned that she also had a tiny part in The Silence of the Lambs.

The One Up Downstairs / The One Up Downstairs, Polyvinyl, 2009

The One Up Downstairs

I was unaware of this pre-American Football band when I lived in Champaign from 1999 through 2005, learning of it when Polyvinyl unearthed these recordings in 2009. Mike Kinsella and Steve Lamos’s involvement are less interesting to me than the other half of the group, David and Allen Johnson, who then formed Very Secretary with former Braid drummer Roy Ewing and violinist Rachael Dietkus (both of whom were also in the short-lived Days in December with Castor’s Jeff Garber). Given all this crossover, the existence of another scrambling of familiar names did not come as much of a surprise to me, nor did the actual music. It sounds like a halfway point between the mannered indie rock of Very Secretary’s 1999 debut Best Possible Souvenir and the carefully arranged emo of American Football. It’s not as good as either of those bands, but hey, it exists. Mike Kinsella only singing while David Johnson played guitar is interesting, however, since after Very Secretary broke up, I heard that Johnson no longer wanted to sing, and instead wanted to bring a different singer (supposedly Compound Red’s Greg Steffke) into the group.

The Most Secret Method / Blue, Self-Released, 1996

The Most Secret Method's Blue

The Most Secret Method were one of DC’s best-kept secrets, with their debut LP, 1998’s Get Lovely (issued by Slowdime), ranking among the finest albums from that era of the scene. They put out a second album in 2002 called Our Success and called it quits, leaving drummer Ryan Nelson to join plenty of other bands. Deep breath: He was in Beauty Pill for a while and contributed the ecstatic title track to the You Are Right to Be Afraid EP [now his wife, Erin Nelson, is in Beauty Pill]; he formed Soccer Team with Melissa Quinley, and their 2015 album Real Lessons in Cynicism was quietly wonderful; he was in the Kalamazoo band Minutes, who pressed too few copies of their fire-spitting records; he was in Routineers, who released one CD and I’ve never heard of them before this instant. As evidenced by the cover of this single and most of his other bands’ albums, he’s also a striking visual artist. They self-released this debut seven-inch, and while they improved considerably by Get Lovely, there’s still plenty here on both the driving DC post-punk song “Blue” and the bass-led instrumental “Perfect Plan” to keep listeners’ attention.

Rex / “All” b/w “Nayramadin Orgil,” Southern, 1995

Rex's 'All' b/w 'Nayramadin Orgil'

Another mid-’90s indie band that has fallen out of the discourse, Rex was an interesting combination of various trends of that time: slow-core (they featured Codeine’s drummer Doug Scharin), Oldham-esque indie folk/country (particularly in their instrumentation), and post-rock. They released three full-length albums, one EP, and three singles, but I first and foremost remember them for the lead track on their 1995 self-titled debut LP. “Nothing Is Most Honourable Than You” is a back-porch dirge with rickety production, a devastating cello line, wounded vocals, and a still-surprising guitar solo. I would be lying if I said anything else in their catalog meant as much to me as that song, even their second album, 1997’s C, which is better written, better performed, and better produced. This single also came out in 1995, and I don’t know if it preceded the album or not, but there’s a greater degree of clarity to the recordings here. Both songs are nice if somewhat inconsequential, “All” is a pleasant, late-night ode, while “Nayramadin Orgil” is an instrumental that eventually features a mouth harp.

Loscil / Sine Studies 1, Jaz, 2013

Loscil's Sine Studies 1

Loscil is one of the few Kranky Records mainstays who has eluded my obsession. I’ve tried to get into several of his full-lengths, but found his brand of ambient to be slightly too cold, too electronic for my tastes. I saw him open for A Winged Victory for the Sullen at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge (RIP) and enjoyed zoning out during his set but wasn’t emotionally invested like I was during AWVFTS. This single is the only Loscil release that I own, and I distinctly recall picking it up at Aquarius Records in San Francisco (RIP). It’s technically impressive—a smart pairing of deep bass notes and sine wave melodies—but my mental picture involves standing in a temperature-controlled, fluorescent-lit room, watching LED lights flicker on servers.

Self-Quarantining with Seven-Inches

A few years ago I started listening to my age in seven-inch singles on my birthday. It helps that I don’t mind embodying a Hard Times piece, not that committing to a bit has ever been my problem. The hurdle for my last birthday was that my stereo was still in the shop, so I indefinitely postponed this yearly ritual for a better day. As horrible, horrible luck would have it, I don’t have anywhere to be this Sunday, so why not self-quarantine myself with at least thirty-nine seven-inch singles? (Fake edit: I made it through listening to and writing about forty-five 45s. Well, some of them play at 33 1/3. I've included Bandcamp / YouTube links whenever possible.)

The Gotobeds' Definitely Not a Redd Kross EP

The Gotobeds / Definitely Not a Redd Kross EP, Chunklet 2017

My other Gotobeds singles were compiled on the heartily recommended Fucking in the Future +5, issued by Comedy Minus One in 2017, but fortunately, this joyous, energetic cover of Redd Kross’s first EP is a great way to start off my day. Fun fact: my kids love The Gotobeds. They especially love the song “New York’s Alright (If You Like Sex and Phones),” and almost every time I cover up the ribald parts of the opening lines—“New York’s alright if you can get your dick sucked / Collegiate display of post-classic head-fuck”—with a well timed cough because I’m not ready to have that talk with them yet. Fortunately, there's no harm in them using a Gotobeds can koozie to hold seltzer cans.

Protomartyr and R. Ring / A Half of Seven, Hardly Art, 2015

Protomartyr / R. Ring's A Half of Seven

Two Fridays ago I was planning on driving out to Kalamazoo to see Protomartyr perform with Kelley Deal in their lineup, and I was particularly excited to hear them perform the Deal-bolstered “Blues Festival” from this single. It features the tremendously relatable lyric “My brains they run on bad thoughts” and is a highlight of my current running mix, not that I can use the treadmill at the gym for the immediate future. Alas, the show was canceled the morning of, and like countless other shows, I can only hope the country recovers at some point so it can be safely rescheduled. In the meantime, Protomartyr’s new single “Processed by the Boys” has an all-time great video and their next album Ultimate Success Today is due in May. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how good R. Ring’s “Loud Underneath” is on the flip of this single; I picked up the band’s Ignite the Rest album in Chicago last year and was glad to hear it again.

Warpaint / “NWO (Redux)” b/w “I’ll Start Believing,” Rough Trade, 2016

Warpaint's 'NWO Redux' b/w 'I'll Start Believing'

I’ve kept an eye on Warpaint since they released their first EP, but I’ve grown considerably fonder of their melodically charged post-punk over their last few records, particularly 2016’s Heads Up. Early on they had a “sum is less than the whole of its parts” problem, with songs like “Elephant” often getting tripped up by awkward transitions or shoehorned hooks. I credit the addition of drummer Stella Mozgawa with ironing out their songwriting process; their songs excel when built up from the foundation of Mozgawa and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg (who often carries the melodic load, Peter Hook–style). I don’t know if these two songs, which I enjoy as much as anything else in the band’s catalog, would fit smoothly on Heads Up, but they certainly deserved a better fate than an import-only single.

Arab Strap / “Hey! Fever” b/w “Girls of Summer,” Chemikal Underground, 1997

Arab Strap's 'Hey! Fever' b/w 'Girls of Summer'

Arab Strap is stirring again, having recently performed as a duo for a Philophobia retrospective (the album was reissued on vinyl by Chemikal Underground in December), and I would love for another full-blown reunion, given how superb their live sets from 2017 sounded. In the meantime, their discography is exceptionally deep, as proven by this pre-Philophobia single. “Hey! Fever” is a Balearic-tinged pop song with guest appearances from Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian and a lyrical callback to their Arab Strap’s signature song, “The First Big Weekend.” It’s nice, although thoroughly out of sync with a frigid March morning stuck indoors. This studio version of “Girls of Summer” is a faint shadow of the live take from Mad for Sadness (which would easily make my top ten Arab Strap songs), but it’s interesting to hear the starting point for that post-rock rave-up.

The Leap Year / “Knesting” b/w “Dental Work,” Hobbedehoy, 2015

The Leap Year's 'Knesting' b/w 'Dental Work'

I recently picked up Ten Years (Thank You), Hobbedehoy Records’ 2LP anniversary compilation. I bought it for the exclusive song from The Leap Year, the unusually delicate, acoustic “No Badlands Now,” but the collection holds together quite well, a testament to the varied tastes of the Australian label: post-rock, drone, electronic, shoegaze, and even a touch of emo. The Leap Year only has two full-lengths, this single, and that compilation track, but every song is excellent. “Knesting” lurches between slowcore meditation and bristling catharsis in a way that recalls some post-Slint ’90s indie groups (or perhaps a more bipolar rendition of Jawbox’s “Whitney Walks”), and “Dental Work” is sinewy Midwestern rock from the opposite side of the globe.

Windy & Carl / “I Walked Alone” b/w “At Night,” Blue Flea, 2014

Windy & Carl's 'I Walked Alone' b/w 'At Night'

Windy & Carl have a new full-length, Allegiance and Conviction, set for release at the end of this week, and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to drive out to Stormy Records and buy it from them directly. I bought this particular Windy & Carl single at Stormy during a visit to Michigan a few years ago, and talking at length with Windy was a highlight of the trip. Each time I’ve been there since moving, I’ve had a nice conversation with Windy and/or Carl, and I’ve also accumulated more of the group’s consistently compelling catalog (along with some other excellent records like Kali Malone's The Sacrificial Code). This single ranks near the top, offering two somnambulant dream-pop songs and a hand-painted cover with a vibrant, welcoming palette. I’ll hold off on Allegiance and Conviction until I can pick it up in person, whenever that may be.

Kathryn Joseph / “Weight” b/w “Cold,” Rock Action, 2019

Kathryn Joseph's 'Weight' b/w 'Cold'

My most disappointing show cancellation of 2019 was The Twilight Sad with Kathryn Joseph, a tantalizing import bill that axed its Boston date after James Graham lost his voice. I’ve seen The Twilight Sad a half-dozen times and I’m sure I’ll see them again, but I haven’t seen the bewitching Kathryn Joseph, whose 2018 album From When I Wake the Want Is possesses a gravitational force. She tours far more sparingly than The Twilight Sad, and whether she’ll make it back to North America at all is a legitimate concern. In addition to her own records, Out Lines, her collaboration with Graham and Marcus MacKay, released Conflats in 2017, and I’m especially partial to its closing track, “These Three Desire Lines.” Their voices work very well together and the arrangements allow plenty of space for the duet to breathe.

Urusei Yatsura / Yon Kyuku Iri EP, Beggars Banquet, 1999

Urusei Yatsura's Yon Kyuku Iri EP

I dove hard into the back catalog of Scottish noise-pop merchants Urusei Yatsura a few years ago after finding a copy of their swan song, 2000’s Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura. Their mix of Pavement’s smarts, Sonic Youth’s tunings, and Dinosaur Jr.’s fuzz is right up my alley, and while “Slain by Elf” has been a personal favorite since picking up the single at Rhino Records in high school, I was surprised to learn about so many import-only singles that are just as good as anything that made their records. This EP is the shiniest jewel glistening at the back of their deep-cut cave, offering four superlative tracks. “Kaytronika” and the aptly titled “Still Exploding” are noise-pop gems fronted by Graham Kemp, “Nobody Knows We’re Stars” is Kemp’s self-effacing yet still-kinda-affecting acoustic ballad, and “Mother of the MBK” is a sprawling, dynamic contribution from Fergus Lawrie. I looked in countless American stores for this single before finally biting the bullet and importing it (along with a few other Urusei Yatsura singles) from the UK. I still need to find the single for "Eastern Youth" so I can have the b-side The Hearts You Break, though.

Foals / “Red Socks Pugie” b/w “Gold Gold Gold,” Transgressive, 2008

Foals' 'Red Socks Pugie' b/w 'Gold Gold Gold'

I’m not begrudging their success, but Foals being a very popular band, especially in Europe, is somewhat mystifying to me. The math-rock–infused, melodic post-punk of Antidotes and Total Life Forever (albums I still very much enjoy) possesses greater crossover appeal than, say, Battles, but I hadn’t predicted that they’d be a big Glastonbury act. And yet, that’s what they’ve become, largely trading the latticework guitar parts of “Balllons” and the slow burn of “Spanish Sahara” for chunky riffs and (cough) obvious lyrics on next last few records. Last year they issued the two-part Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, and my interest was reignited by much of part one (and a comparatively small portion of part two). For a single, “Exits” is an endearingly odd duck (the video still has almost five million views on YouTube), six minutes of off-kilter Tears for Fears homage, but that’s the sort of decision I appreciate seeing. (The meathead rock of Part Two’s “Black Bull,” not as much.) A few tracks even echoed the emotional resonance of “Red Socks Pugie,” which broke through the occasionally clinical Antidotes with some post-emo yearning amid its surging tempos.

Speedy Ortiz / “Ka-Prow!” b/w “Hexxy,” Inflated, 2013

Speedy Ortiz's 'Ka-Prow!' b/w 'Hexxy'

The world deserves a Speedy Ortiz singles/rarities compilation. I don’t know how hard it is to find this particular single, which supercharges two songs from Sadie Dupuis’s earliest Speedy Ortiz recordings with full-band renditions, but there’s plenty more beyond it. Early digital single “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” still graces their set lists (and also marks the point where the band sounded like a band), Adult Swim single “Bigger Party” has one of the best lyrical uses of “shithead” in recorded history, the tracks from Foil Deer’s supplemental EP Foiled Again deserve a physical release (particularly “Death Note,” which has a nasty riff), not everyone got the special edition of Twerp Verse with the bonus single, and several other worthy tracks are floating around (like their Liz Phair cover). Hell, put "Cutco" on there because it would be really nice to have "Cutco" on there. Boom, press a thousand copies. A new Sad13 album is due soon, which means Speedy Ortiz will be quiet on new material for a while, the perfect time to prep a singles compilation.

Shiner / “Semper Fi” b/w “A Sailor’s Fate,” DeSoto, 1999

Shiner's 'Semper Fi' b/w 'A Sailor's Fate'

Shiner’s reunion album, Schadenfreude, is due at the end of May, and you can hear “Life as a Mannequin” now. I’m trying not to overdo it on the advanced single, because I know I will listen to the album as a whole a great deal, but the general vibe is Starless with the knowledge gained from five albums with The Life and Times (who remain an ongoing project that you should absolutely keep up with), and I'm pretty happy with that combination. I’m just as excited about the chance to see Shiner again, provided that circumstances improve enough by the end of May (stares blankly into space). I am, however, faced with one of the oddest concert conflicts in my lifetime. The closest currently schedule Shiner date is in Grand Rapids on May 24th, which happens to be the same night as Hindsight 2020 at Matt Talbott’s bar Loose Cobra in Tolono, IL, where Castor, Menthol, and Honcho Overload will be performing. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have to choose between seeing Shiner or seeing Castor, I would be exceptionally confused about the future state of the world.

Savak / “Where Should I Start?” b/w “Expensive Things,” Modern City, 2017

Savak's 'Where Should I Start?' b/w 'Expensive Things'

There’s no slowing down Savak, who will soon release their fourth LP (the delightfully titled Rotting Teeth in the Horse's Mouth) since forming in 2015, bolstered by a four-song EP and two singles. “Where Should I Start?” is a propulsive, Krautrock-infused rocker fronted by Sohrab Habibion (formerly of Edsel and Obits, bands with similarly relentless work ethics and consistently rewarding catalogs), while Michael Jaworski sings the brighter “Expensive Things,” which thrives with compositional detail. Savak recently shared a playlist of music from around the globe that was inspiring them lately, and I think that appetite for new and different sounds helps keep the balance of their own songwriting in the sweet spot between fresh and familiar. While this single ranks among my favorite of their releases, the closing tracks from 2017’s Cut-Ups (“I Left America”) and 2018’s Beg Your Pardon (“They Are Not Like Us”) are poignant, politically charged highlights of their ever-expanding repertoire.

Julianna Barwick / “Pacing” b/w “Call,” Suicide Squeeze, 2013

Julianna Barwick's 'Pacing' b/w 'Call'

This Julianna Barwick single is among the best seven-inches released in the last decade and a requisite selection every time I play a large stack of singles. (I previously wrote about it here.) As much as I cherish her full-lengths, especially 2011’s The Magic Place and 2013’s Nepenthe, there’s no better introduction to her serenely calming arrangements of vocal loops and gentle piano lines than the a-side “Pacing,” nor a better instrumental respite to be found than the b-side “Call.” Many of her tracks do more in terms of compositional techniques, melodic inspiration, and instrumental variety, but as a distillation of what makes her so crucial to my listening in the last decade, I direct you to this single. She’s been relatively quiet since 2016’s Will, issuing a four-song collaborative EP with Rafael Anton Irisarri (Thesis 10) in 2017 and the five-song cassette Circumstance Synthesis last year, so here’s hoping that another full-length is in the works.

Sunny Day Real Estate / “How It Feels to Be Something On” b/w “Bucket of Chicken,” Sub Pop, 1998

Sunny Day Real Estate's 'How It Feels to Be Something On' b/w 'Bucket of Chicken'

In theory, I don’t need this pre-album single from Sunny Day Real Estate’s original glorious return in 1998, given that the a-side is the title track to How It Feels to Be Something On, and the ingloriously named b-side (written for the soundtrack to The Crow, from which it was rejected, unlike “8,” which made the cut for the Batman Forever soundtrack) has since been included on the vinyl reissue of LP2. But I’m a sucker for this kind of hand-made sleeve, its textured paper reminiscent of countless other care-in-packaging classics from that era (June of 44’s first three releases, the Rachel’s records, Postmarked Stamps singles, etc.). They were bigger than those bands, but still felt connected to the need for a personal touch. If you haven't heard the William Goldsmith interview on The Trap Set podcast, I highly recommend it, although it is very intense and will likely pull the rug out from underneath your prior conception of SDRE's internal dynamics.

L’Altra / Ouletta, Aesthetics, 2002

L'Altra's Ouletta

From what I can tell, L’Altra (French for “the other”) has been largely forgotten since their modest heyday in the early ’00s, having last released a comeback-of-sorts album with 2010’s Telepathic. Over their original run of a self-titled 1999 EP, 2000’s Music of a Sinking Occasion, 2002’s In the Afternoon, and 2005’s Different Days, Lindsay Anderson and Joseph Costa’s voices intertwined over an evolving backdrop of Low-esque slowcore, infusing their sound with post-rock, chamber pop, folk, and electronic elements as the additional members of their lineup shifted. (Different Days featured both members of Telefon Tel Aviv after Anderson appeared on three tracks from the group’s 2004 Map of What Is Effortless). Both Anderson and Costa released solo records in 2007, If and Costa Music’s Lighter Subjects, and while I enjoyed those releases, it’s clear in hindsight that they work best in tandem. Ouletta’s quiet strength encourages me to revisit those records in the near future. It's one song split into two parts.

Ocampo, Ocampo, and Watt / “Apparatus” b/w “Better Than a Dirtnap,” ORG Music, 2019

Ocampo, Ocampo, and Watt's 'Apparatus' b/w 'Better Than a Dirtnap'

Few tears will be shed over the postponement of Record Store Day this year, as for most people who do not work for the reissues department of a major label, the “holiday” has become a punch-line for the music industry’s worst excesses. But every now and then there’s a legitimate gem released on Record Store Day (or, deep sigh, Record Store Day Black Friday), and last year’s one-off collaboration between Devin Ocampo (of Smart Went Crazy, Faraquet, Medications, Beauty Pill, and The Effects), Renata Ocampo, and the esteemed Mike Watt is one such exception. Anyone familiar with Devin Ocampo’s songs knows that man does not fuck around, and “Apparatus” aligns with his history of excellence, despite the parts being recorded on opposite sides of the country. Watt’s “Better Than a Dirtnap” is a typically idiosyncratic sing-along, a strange song that nevertheless sounds like something you’d known for years. Worth tracking down for fans of any involved parties.

Mogwai / “Mexican Grand Prix” b/w “Slight Domestic,” Rock Action, 2011

Mogwai's 'Mexican Grand Prix' b/w 'Slight Domestic'

Mogwai hasn’t been quite as productive in the last few years, with their last release being the soundtrack to the sci-fi action film Kin in 2018. (The soundtrack is mostly fine, if less than essential, and I will someday make it through more than fifteen minutes of the film, just not today.) It’s not like the band hasn’t provided me with a surplus of material to enjoy—their vinyl, box sets and all, occupy an entire Kallax cube—but I’ve been spoiled by how regularly they issue both top-line and supplemental material. Their 2011 LP Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (which I wrote about at length here) may possess an unquestionably superb album title, but the song selection is somewhat baffling, as the measured, meditative “Slight Domestic” from the b-side of this single and the bruising “Hasenheide” from the “Rano Pano” single each improve upon several tracks from the album.

Pile / “Special Snowflakes” b/w “Mama’s Lipstick,” Exploding in Sound, 2014

Pile's 'Special Snowflakes' b/w 'Mama's Lipstick'

Both songs from this single were included on Pile’s accurately titled Odds and Ends compilation in 2018, which collected a bunch of essential tracks from singles and compilations (other highlights include the “Cut off my dick!” screams in “Big Web,” the roaring forward momentum of “Pigeon Song,” and the open fragility of “Keep the Last Light On”). That does not preclude me from pulling out the original single, however, as both of these songs remain among my favorites from the group, and it’s nice to be reminded of just how great of a scope, in terms of both compositional breadth and emotional depth, Pile could fit onto one seven-inch. “Special Snowflakes” was the showstopper, a moody, dynamic rocker that evoked the almighty Rodan in how deftly it handled the switch from a languid stumble to wide-eyed electricity. But “Mama’s Lipstick” was the revelation here, grasping for ineffable memories from youth as present situations ever-threaten to disintegrate.

Constantines / “Our Age” b/w “Fuckin’ Up,” Arts & Crafts, 2008

Constantines' 'Our Age' b/w 'Fuckin' Up'

The Guelph-based Constantines are one of those bands that feel very much like they should have been bigger, given how immediate most of their catalog sounds in its Fugazi-meets-Springsteen aesthetic. Perhaps they simply came out too soon, given how other bands mining that general territory found more lasting success in the years following the last Constantines album, 2008’s Kensington Heights. While 2003’s Shine a Light stands as their best album, the bridge between the raw energy of their self-titled debut and the comparatively refined songs from Tournament of Hearts, there’s no single song of theirs I revisit more frequently than “Our Age,” the highlight of Kensington Heights. It’s a classic rock song in the way that many trio-era Silkworm songs are classic rock songs, imparting the accumulated wisdom from their younger, dumber years without sounding like they’re talking down to the kids. There’s a wonderful acoustic rendition on the companion EP Too Slow for Love that’s also worth hearing.

Silkworm's 'Into the Woods' b/w 'Incanduce California'

Silkworm / “Into the Woods” b/w “Incanduce California,” Rockamundo, 1993

I wrote extensively about Comedy Minus One’s exceedingly welcome reissue of Silkworm’s In the West last year, and hearing “Into the Woods” from that album on a dusty seven-inch is a good reminder of how tremendous of a job Steve Albini, Tim Midyett, and Andy Cohen did with the remix/remaster of the source material. (There was even a skip before the second verse, to add injury to insult.) I heartily recommend picking up that vinyl reissue (“Incanduce California” is one of the digital bonus tracks) and listening to the episode of Kreative Kontrol with the aforementioned trio of personnel for an enlightening look back at the genesis of the album. Tim Midyett's current band, Mint Mile, just released a double album called Ambertron on Comedy Minus One, but hopefully you preordered that record months ago, had it arrive last week and are enjoying it now.

Tarentel / Two Sides of Myself, Static Caravan, 2000

Tarentel's Two Sides of Myself

The post-rock group Tarentel evolved rapidly throughout the course of their existence, going through phases of ambient drones, rhythmic clatter, and psychedelic noise without losing track of a consistent continuum. Having listened to the spacious, haunting drones of 2001’s The Order of Things earlier this week, it’s hard not to see this two-song single as a bridge between the more typical post-rock structures of 1999’s From Bone to Satellite (reissued with bonus material in 2016) and the comparatively skeletal approaches of The Order of Things. It’s worth noting that these songs were recorded in the same time frame (Summer 1999 and February 2000) as my favorite Tarentel material, the “Looking for Things” b/w “Searching for Things” twelve-inch. All four songs, alone with “The Waltz” from their Travels in Constants release, were compiled on Ephemera | Singles 99–2000, which is my ideal soundtrack for reading.

Helium / “Hole in the Ground” b/w “Lucy,” Pop Narcotic, 1993

Helium's 'Hole in the Ground' b/w 'Lucy'

I shouldn’t be surprised that Helium was so good by their second single; after all, Mary Timony had already been in Autoclave and knew how to write arresting songs. But on “Hole in the Ground” and especially the b-side “Lucy” (which I first heard on the disc of bonus material for formative compilation What’s Up Matador), Timony’s noise-pop instincts impress mightily. I could hear an argument that “Lucy” doesn’t need to extend to six-and-a-half minutes, but until No Guitars, Helium tended to stretch their songs out as they saw fit, and “Lucy” deserves to revel in twisting guitar feedback as much as "Baby's Going Underground" needed to zone out in rhythmic bliss. Both sides of this single were included on the 2017 compilation Ends With And, which, like the simultaneous vinyl reissues of The Dirt of Luck and Magic City / No Guitars, are no-doubt pick-ups for anyone interested in rock music .

Telegraph Melts / “Heilgeschichte und Weltgeschichte” b/w “Goodbye No. 20,” Self-released, 1997

Telegraph Melts' single

Telegraph Melts was a briefly lived cello-and-guitar duo from two familiar names in the DC music scene. Cellist Amy Dominguez was the driving force for Garland of Hours (along with Brendan Canty), and has done guest spots with countless bands likely in your collection (Fugazi, Faraquet, Mary Timony, Jets to Brazil, Beauty Pill, Ted Leo, etc.). Guitarist Bob Massey was also a member of Tsunami for a spell. Together as Telegraph Melts, they released a full-length, Ilium (which opens with the excellent "Septembrist"), on Absolutely Kosher in 1998 (guest percussion from Devin Ocampo!), and this single. A small, but memorable collection of material that straddled the line between experimental, sometimes abrasive compositions (the slashing guitar noise of “Heilgeschichte…”) and beautiful, affecting post-classical arrangements (“Goodbye No. 20”) reminiscent of Rachel’s. I likely wouldn’t have heard of Telegraph Melts without the early MP3-promoting site Epitonic, but I’m glad that I did.

Ganger / “Geocities” b/w “Alessandra and Her Western Fan,” Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1998

Ganger's 'Geocities' b/w 'Alessandra and her Western Fan

The most obvious reference for Ganger is Mogwai, given that both were prominent post-rock bands from Scotland in the mid-’90s (and I saw them on the same mind-blowing, ear-splitting bill at the Metro in Chicago in September 1999), but on this particular single, a more specific aesthetic touchstone would be the Chicago-based band Dianogah, who explored similar two-bass instrumentals. Technically, Ganger’s lineup included guitarist Craig B. as well, but the basses run the show here, and you could slot either of these songs onto a Dianogah record without raising many eyebrows. A few disparate points: first, the title “Geocities” has largely returned to a positive mental image separate from “gross early web site design”; second, “Alessandra…” was originally a song from Craig B. and Natasha Noramly’s band Fukuyama, whose two singles languish at the bottom of my Discogs wantlist; third, I cannot stress how much better Hammock Style is than anything else in Ganger’s generally likable catalog. If you enjoy post-rock and haven’t heard Hammock Style (start with the incredible "Capo [South of Caspian]"), rectify that error.

Dirty Three & Scenic / Split Single, Narwhal, 1998

Dirty Three and Scenic split single

If you’re looking to author some indelible mental pictures while stuck at home, you can do a lot worse for inspiration than the instrumental compositions of Dirty Three and Scenic. I recently listened to Dirty Three’s classic run of albums (1996’s Horse Stories, 1998’s Ocean Songs, and 2000’s Whatever You Love, You Are) and it’s impossible to overstate their greatness. “A Strange Holiday” is on par with those records, a largely piano-dominated lament that gives way to Warren Ellis’s multi-tracked violin in its final minutes. (I recently watched the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, and Ellis comes across as a supremely endearing human being, especially the scene in which he’s directly a children’s choir.) I know Scenic more for guitarist Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Records / Independent Project Press, which upped the ante on record packaging in the ’80s and ’90s, but I own several of Scenic’s impeccably packaged albums on CD somewhere, and their songs are evocative of many things, but most specifically open Western landscapes. “When the Time Comes” is more brisk than ponderous, but it’s a nice complement to Dirty Three’s track.

Beastie Boys / “Sure Shot” b/w “Mullet Head” Capitol, 1994

Beastie Boys' 'Sure Shot' b/w 'Mullet Head'

The Beastie Boys were one of the groups in the ’90s that I generally enjoyed but were inescapable enough that I didn’t feel any need to actively put them on—I’ve undoubtedly seen the video for “Sure Shot” dozens of times—but after Adam Yauch passed away in 2012, I made a more conscious effort to work through their catalog. I appreciate their work in the following order: Paul’s Boutique, the singles from their ’90s albums, their general cultural presence, the entirety of their ’90s albums, and then maybe Licensed to Ill and their later records. Last year I read Book, which is a supremely entertaining read for even fair-weather fans like myself, and worth checking out of your local library the next time it's open. I am glad that I picked up this single at Mystery Train at some point; “Sure Shot” is a classic and I enjoy doing the dog-saying-“I love you” intro, “Mullet Head” is a better-than-you’d expect rocker with a neat snaking guitar part midway through, and the remix, while unnecessary, isn’t unlistenable.

Bloc Party / “Two More Years” b/w “Hero,” Wichita, 2005

Bloc Party's 'Two More Years' b/w 'Hero'

I pulled out Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm earlier this week, and as I do every time I listen to that album, I started thinking about how quickly and thoroughly they squandered its excitement. 2007’s A Weekend in the City isn’t a complete whiff (I like “Hunting for Witches”), but it’s a step in the wrong direction, one which placed too much sonic detritus in the way of the clear, well rehearsed instrumental interplay that drew me into Silent Alarm. (And that was before they started 2008’s Intimacy with a drum break overwhelmingly reminiscent of Chemikal Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats.”) The biggest problem with Bloc Party’s second record is that they could have made it sooner. They had a number of excellent non-album tracks that were left to import singles, as exhibited here by the catchy “Two More Years,” and if they’d simply collected those for Silent Alarm’s follow-up instead of frittering them away, things might’ve gone better in the long run. ("Hero" is a b-side, through and through.) It was particularly noticeable when “Little Thoughts,” another non-album single, popped up in the middle of my American pressing of Silent Alarm, and I immediately thought “This song wasn’t on the album” followed by “Why wasn’t this song on the album?”

Wye Oak / “Spiral” b/w “Wave Is Not the Water,” Merge, 2017

Wye Oak's 'Spiral' b/w 'Wave Is Not the Water'

Merge wisely pressed these two Adult Swim Singles Series tracks to vinyl in 2017, just like they’d done for Wye Oak’s outrageously good covers of The Kinks’ “Strangers” and Danzig’s “Mother” from the AV Club’s Undercover series in 2011. “Spiral” originally came out in 2012, when I thought its danceable rhythms and rolling marimba melody were interesting stylistic divergences instead of signs of things to come. I was wrong! “Wave Is Not the Water” came out in 2017 and is much more in line with the following year’s excellent The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. Wye Oak has issued a number of digital singles leading up to their five-piece-band tour Join (which was sadly interrupted), and I wouldn’t be surprised if an album including those songs arrives this fall, hopefully with a tour stop in Michigan. It would be wild to see them perform with Andy Stack out front playing bass.

The Fall / Bingo-Master’s Break Out!, Superior Viaduct, 1978/2016

The Fall's Bingo-Master's Break Out!

I was slowly working my way up to it, but after Mark E. Smith passed away in 2018, I committed myself to a thorough appreciation of The Fall. I listened to virtually everything the band released—albums, Peel Sessions, singles, rarities—up until around 2000, at which point I very understandably needed to put the project on hold. If there’s a core truth about The Fall that I can impart, it’s that all of those things are important to understanding the band. I could say “1980 through 1986, that’s the best era, Perverted by Language is my favorite album, a singles collection like Palace of Swords Reversed is the best starting point,” but dabbling doesn’t paint the whole picture. I needed to understand that Smith used the albums for different purposes than the singles, that sometimes the definitive version of a song would appear on a Peel Session before or after the release of the album, because you needed to hear all of the versions (exhibit one is “New Puritan”), that knowing the names on the sleeve was critical, even if only one name truly mattered. (That name? Steve Hanley. Kidding, maybe.) It’s even evidenced here on their first single (the only seven-inch I own from them). The two antsy post-punk songs on the a-side are the appetizer, and the rambling, ranting “Repetition” on the flip is the main course.

Hot Snakes / “I Shall Be Free” b/w “A Place in the Sun,” P U, 2020

Hot Snakes' 'I Shall Be Free' b/w 'A Place in the Sun'

It pays to have friends who will buy an extra copy of a limited-run, available-at-shows-only single and mail it to you, so without my friend Scott, I would not be listening to the new Hot Snakes single right now. These songs will appear on their next album, presumably due in the fall, so if you’re upset about missing out, you won’t languish in misery forever. As per Hot Snakes standards, both songs totally rip / smoke / shred / kill / eviscerate. Whatever trending verb you’ve got, this single does it, the Hot Snakes guarantee. “I Shall Be Free” opens with their telltale melodica, but soon breaks out into a pounding, mid-tempo series of body blows. “A Place in the Sun” is even better, an all-out rocker with a riff near the end of the song that recalls some of Drive Like Jehu’s crazier moments. Let me preorder the next record now and Rick Froberg can blow my twenty bucks on art supplies to keep himself busy.

Fucked Up / “Blink” b/w “The Way We Did,” Fucked Up Records, 2014

Fucked Up's 'Blink' b/w 'The Way We Did'

I’ve played a lot of records this week, but given that my wife is working from home and my kids are attempting to keep up with school, the vast majority of albums qualify as unobtrusive. I’m glad to rotate through my stacks of ambient, drone, modern classical, post-rock, and Kosmiche records, but one day after dinner I put on Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life, and it felt alive in a way that much of this last week hasn’t. It also reminded me of the times that I’ve seen Fucked Up, and how sweaty those shows are in the best possible way. The Fucked Up live experience may only exist in fantasy right now, but fortunately they have released a metric fuckload of records, and I own a good, if by no means complete, collection of them. A personal favorite is this tour single, purchased at a concert in San Francisco. Both songs rank among my favorites for the band, and I’ve found myself putting it on quite a lot over the years for a small dose of a band that’s often served in overwhelming portions. Apparently it's hard to come by because a box of them fell out of their van on the way to Los Angeles, the classic punk rock mix-up.

The Twilight Sad / “The Room” b/w “The Neighbours Can’t Breathe (Acoustic),” FatCat, 2010

The Twilight Sad's 'The Room' b/w 'The Neighbours Can't Breathe

The Twilight Sad has issued a tall stack of seven-inches that would make worthy choices for today, most recently the “Rats” b/w “Public Housing” supplement to their 2019 album It Won/t Be Like This All the Time (fingers crossed). But it’s hard to pass up a single with one of their best songs on the a-side and an acoustic version of another one of their best songs on the b-side, both from their underrated 2009 album Forget the Night Ahead. (I could make a convincing argument that each of their albums since their rightly heralded 2007 debut, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, is underrated in some capacity.) “The Room” appropriates the insistent, minimal pound of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” for a comparatively warm, if typically inscrutable tale. I’m also partial to the live rendition with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Regardless of the arrangement, it’s all about James Graham’s voice. “The Neighbours Can’t Breathe” strips the jet-engine roar from the album version to reveal Andy MacFarlane’s delicate arpeggios and loses none of its mystery.

Cloakroom / “Lossed Over” b/w “Dream Warden,” Run for Cover, 2014

Cloakroom's 'Lossed Over' b/w 'Dream Warden'

Cloakroom was scheduled to open for Caspian in Detroit this spring, but like many others, that show was postponed indefinitely. They’ve toured in the last year, but haven’t released anything since 2017’s Time Well, which was my introduction to their blend of Hum’s guitar tones, Pinebender’s crawling tempos, and Songs: Ohia’s wounded emotions. The a-side of this single appears on their 2015 album Further Out (its closing track, “Deep Sea Station,” is one of those songs I’ll play a half-dozen times in a row), but its b-side is exclusive to the single, and features Hum’s Matt Talbott, who produced Further Out, on vocals. I know Hum is still threatening to release a new record one of these years (“It’s almost ready” I’ve heard, quite a lot), but “Dream Warden” is a few ripping Tim Lash leads shy of being a fantastic Hum song.

St. Vincent / “Krokodil” b/w “Grot,” 4AD, 2012

St. Vincent's 'Krokodil' b/w 'Grot'

Another rare instance of an essential record being released on Record Store Day, this St. Vincent single might be my favorite thing that she’s released. St. Vincent played a set of Big Black covers in 2011, and it’s hard not to hear “Krokodil” as embodying that abrasive spirit. That isn’t to say that it’s pale mimicry or uninspired tribute—“Krokodil” certainly has the manicured arrangements of Strange Mercy in its DNA as well—but it’s an exceptionally interesting direction for her to take given how fast her star was growing at that point. “Grot” is even better, as Annie Clark caustically delivers power-structure critiques over a slow-motion collision of enchanting vocal loops and super-heavy, warped riffs. On one level it’s disappointing that she didn’t pursue this direction further or longer, on another level perhaps it’s the exact right amount to pursue this direction.

The Mekons / “Where Were You?” b/w “I’ll Have to Dance Then (On My Own),” Superior Viaduct, 1978/2018

The Mekons' 'Where Were You?' single

As someone who counts 1985’s Fear and Whiskey among his favorite albums, it’s slightly embarrassing that it took me this long to properly explore The Mekons’ earliest recordings when they were in the same post-punk class as Gang of Four (literally: both bands formed at the University of Leeds). Some of this delay came down to availability, since they’re a band I mostly listen to on vinyl, and while I had been able to find copies of their key records from the ’80s and early ’90s with relative ease, I simply didn’t run into 1979’s The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, 1980’s self-titled album, or their early singles in American record stores. Some of this delay came down to reputation, as their early days are often discussed as being an art school lark that never took itself very seriously, especially in contrast to Gang of Four. Fortunately, Superior Viaduct has reissued their first two singles and their debut record, and my immediate takeaway from spending adequate time with this era of the band is that it’s far, far better than reported. They possessed a freewheeling, egalitarian artistic spirit, but they wrote post-punk songs that were just as good as their compatriots’. Here, “Where Were You?” evokes a more lighthearted track from Wire’s Chairs Missing and “I’ll Have to Dance Then” nicks some of Gang of Four’s funkiness.

Scout Niblett / No More Nasty Scrubs, Drag City, 2012

Scout Niblett's No More Nasty Scrubs

Last year I read Erin Osmon’s Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, an enlightening and eventually very harrowing look into the life and death of the Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. captain. The book discusses how Molina gave Scout Niblett’s demo to Secretly Canadian, which led to her signing with the label, and how they would share a split single. I had seen her name before, but didn’t know anything about her, so when I checked out Wikipedia, I learned that 1. we are birthday buddies 2. she released a single with covers of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” and TLC’s “No More Scrubs.” I made a mental note to find that single, and as if fate had deemed me worthy, I found a copy at Dearborn Music a few weeks later. Her rendition of “Nasty” is appropriately sassy and drum-heavy, but it’s her sober, bluesy take on “No More Scrubs” that rewards that initial connection with Jason Molina. Granted, covering an R&B song is far more of a Will Oldham move, but Niblett does both sides of this conceit justice. Now I need to make a mental note to find more of her records.

Wire / “A Question of Degree” b/w “Former Airline,” Harvest, 1979

Wire's 'A Question of Degree' b/w 'Former Airline'

I own two copies of the most essential Wire non-album single, given that I’d bought this original a few years before all of their early singles (most of which I did not previously own) were collected in the Nine Sevens box set. But it’s hard to complain about having another copy of “A Question of Degree,” one of Wire’s best tracks, and the platonic ideal of guitar-driven post-punk. The flip is, in a particular sense, an accurate prediction of the upcoming 154, as “Former Airline” buries what could have been a straightforward post-punk track in layers of abrasive production noise (horns, strange sounds, guitar slashes—who knows). As with 154, it works because of what accompanies it. I can listen to all of 154 because for every unsettling “Indirect Enquiries,” there’s a perfectly crafted “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” to help it go down.

Stereolab / “Solar Throw-Away” b/w “Jump Drive Shut-Out,” Duophonic, 2006

Stereolab's 'Solar Throw-Away' b/w 'Jump Drive Shut-Out'

Seeing Stereolab on their fall tour last year was one of my biggest priorities and toughest logistical challenges; I had to make an educated guess as to where I would be living at the time, and thankfully, I correctly surmised that I would be closest to their Detroit date. It was worth all of the stress to finally see them perform. Laetitia Sadier has a completely enchanting stage presence, Tim Gane seemed thoroughly pleased to hyper-strum on the side of the stage, and substitute bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimera handled those exceptionally dexterous bass line and the dearly departed Mary Hansen’s background vocals with jaw-dropping aplomb. They played the songs I wanted to hear the most—“Crest” and “Jenny Ondioline”—but showed that any song from their vast catalog could be captivating. Over the next few months I worked through their series of expanded reissues, seven in total, and at no point did I wish that there was less to go around. Next up, to the best of my knowledge, is Switched On Volume Four, another collection of non-album material, which I presume will include this single. I genuinely couldn’t remember what these songs sounded like before putting it on, but the a-side is a particular treat with its mid-song shift. Will we get new Stereolab music? Who knows, but I’m ready and waiting if they do.

Errors / “Magna Encarta” b/w “Ganymede,” Rock Action, 2010

Errors' Magna Encarta' b/w 'Ganymede'

It’s a bummer when you have to come to your own conclusion that a band is done making music—such is (presumably) the case with my beloved Scottish post-electro band Errors. Their last record was 2015’s Lease of Life, for which they did comparatively little touring (no live footage of this material is on YouTube), and it now seems safe to say that the inventive, vocal-heavy synth pop of that album marked their final evolution. I’m glad that I was able to see them at Great Scott in Allston in 2012, and especially appreciative that they performed “Magna Encarta,” my favorite song from the group. It marked the farewell of original guitarist Greg Paterson, who left the group before 2012's superlative Have Some Faith in Magicto pursue dentistry, and over its six minutes there’s a still-impressive array of terrain covered, from poignant slide guitar leads, to subterranean video game level neuroses, to wordless yet emotive vocals. It easily ranks among my favorite songs from the last decade. The b-side, “Ganymede,” is comparatively slight, but tonight I appreciated its womb-like enclosure.

Braid / “Please Drive Faster” b/w “Circus of the Stars,” Polyvinyl, 1999

Braid's 'Please Drive Faster' b/w 'Circus of the Stars'

It’s somehow been only five weeks since most of my Twitter feed was griping about Vulture’s Top 100 Emo Songs instead of worrying about their potential doom, but time flies when you’re vastly overrating American Football. I kid—mostly. As much as I like American Football (albums one and three), it remains a brain-breaking thought that a band who was mostly an afterthought in Champaign, where I moved to for college in 1999, would be the most heralded, influential act in emo twenty years later. If you’re familiar with Upright Citizens Brigade bits, it’s like asking the robot, “How come?” I just can’t wrap my head around it. If I were a betting man and had to pick one Champaign band to take that crown, I would have said “Oh, it’ll be Braid” in a split-second. Their last show was on my first night in college and it was packed. People cared about their string of posthumous releases. Other bands aped their sound. Post-Braid act Hey Mercedes was on every bill in Illinois for a solid year. Am I saying that Braid deserves to be the most heralded, most influential emo band? No, not really. I’m happy to pick and choose from most of their catalog prior to Frame and Canvas and this single, which was later included on Movie Music Vol.1. Their legacy isn’t half-bad: they enjoyed several reunions and put out a solid full-length with 2014’s No Coast. But if you presented two anonymized paths and asked me which one would be American Football’s and which one would be Braid’s, I would have been dead wrong. Don’t trust me on anything.

Lower Dens / “I Get Nervous” b/w “Johnssong,” Gnomonsong, 2010

Lower Dens' 'I Get Nervous' b/w 'Johnssong'

Jana Hunter had been making music for years before forming Lower Dens, but it remains impressive that the group formed in 2010 and released Twin Hand Movement the same year, given that it’s such an assured, thought-out debut. The element that stands out to me about both “I Get Nervous” and the non-album b-side is how ’50s pop is foundational in the sound—the reverb-heavy guitar, the slow-dance tempos—and yet neither song sounds like an explicit throwback. After enjoying Twin Hand Movement, I was floored by “Brains,” the lead single for their sophomore album, 2012’s Nootropics, and how it felt like the future in a way that few songs do. (I put it on a few months ago and it still does sound like the future.) Given the penchant for dramatic stylistic shifts (and the departure of the other original members of the band), I shouldn’t be surprised by Lower Dens’ switch to mining of ’80s synth-rock on their last two records, but I haven’t found as much about those records that engages me as on their first two.

Michael Beach / “Curtain of Night” b/w “Electricity,” Tall Texan, 2019

Michael Beach's 'Curtain of Night' b/w 'Electricity'

Australian native and periodic Oakland resident Michael Beach released one of the best records of 2017 in Gravity/Repulsion, which recalls both American classic rock staples and New Zealand rock imports over its eight songs and twenty-six minutes. There are short records and there are concise records, and Gravity/Repulsion is the latter, but even within its tidy runtime, there’s a sense of sprawl and space to “A Vision of Modern Love” and “Freddie Dreams of Mars” that most artists would waste hours trying to capture. This single introduces his new backing band, The Artists, with one original song, the affable and immediate “Curtain of Night,” which slides on like a well worn pair of jeans that somehow hasn’t developed an embarrassing hole in the crotch, and one cover, a coiled, tense rendition of Peter Jefferies’ “Electricity.”

Polvo / “Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress,” Merge, 2011

Polvo's 'Heavy Detour' b/w 'Anchoress'

I never miss an opportunity to harp on the greatness of Polvo in general and post-reformation Polvo in specific, so when I saw the largely slept-on “Heavy Detour” single in the box, I pulled it out over some classic competitors. This single came out between 2009’s In Prism and 2013’s Siberia (which may be the best Polvo album if you let me talk at you for a half an hour), and the a-side is exclusive to the single, while the b-side was re-recorded for Siberia. “Heavy Detour” is a Dave Brylawski–fronted track, and I suspect fans are slightly cooler on those songs than ones Ash Bowie sings, but it’s a solid track. (Is one of my main arguments in favor of Siberia that Brylawski’s songs are every bit as good as Bowie’s on that album? It sure is!) The synth strings are a key component and there’s a groove to the song, both elements that Polvo generally avoided but work well here. Bowie’s “Anchoress” is an interesting case—there’s this version, an alternate take that was available as a bonus download, and the final version that made Siberia. I enjoy this version for its differences (much more prominent synths, a funny vocal “Yeah huh” from Bowie before the outro), but the Siberia version hits the proper, slightly somber tone.

The Paradise Motel / “Drive” b/w “Drive (Mogwai Mix),” Infectious, 1999

The Paradise Motel's 'Drive'

In the early days of filesharing, songs were often mislabeled in hilariously egregious ways, but a subtler mistake accompanied my original encounter with Mogwai’s remix of The Paradise Motel’s cover of The Cars’ “Drive.” It was simply labeled as a Mogwai song, no mention of The Paradise Motel. I don’t think it took long for me to learn that it was a remix (not that I learned anything about The Paradise Motel in the process), but I still enjoyed its exceptionally minimal, digitally processed lullaby rendition of that Cars song. Last year, I came across a cheap copy of this seven-inch, and heard the unaltered cover for the first time. It’s pleasant and similarly minimal for the first half (the vocals lack digital processing), and then a very prominent string arrangement elbows its way into the song. That arrangement mercifully fades, but the calm has been broken. Mogwai’s version focuses on the original synth melody and the digital layers over Merida Sussex’s vocals. It never peaks, it just glides. It’s exponentially better than the source material.

Wipers / Alien Boy, 1980/2019

Wipers' Alien Boy EP

I don’t actually believe that Greg Sage existed in a vacuum, sealed off from the rest of punk and post-punk in Portland, OR, but when I listen to the Wipers’ music, it feels disconnected enough from the trends and techniques popular elsewhere at the time that I can at least entertain the thought. This EP includes “Alien Boy” from their debut Is This Real? along with three outtakes from those sessions. It feels very much like a bridge to their next release, 1982’s Youth of America. It invokes that record’s mood—its paranoid, lonely, nervous energy—but with the three non-album tracks fitting on the b-side, not Youth of America’s sense of scope. “Voices in the Rain” in particular has the sing-speak delivery that’s used a number of times on its follow-up.

Concert Review: Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox at The Sinclair

“An Impartial Overview,” Jawbox’s chosen title for their reunion tour, works only in theory. Perhaps the band themselves can look upon their back catalog with the dry objectivity promised by that lyric from “Chinese Fork Tie,” but for fans of the band, approaching the group’s first proper tour dates since 1997 (a humble, presumably unintended finale on Valentine’s Day in Rochester, NY) with anything close to detachment is an impossible order. The 2009 performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was both blessing and curse: it was wonderful to see Jawbox’s four members on the same stage again, gracing a new audience with the brilliance of “Savory,” but what if that short set was truly the end? For the next decade, I crossed names off the wish list of bands I’d initially missed due to youth or stupidity, but Jawbox remained in all caps. Its members weren’t all hibernating: J. Robbins added to his considerable catalog with Office of Future Plans and his just-issued solo album Un-Becoming while the instrumental Bells≥ pushed Zach Barocas’s considerable chops. There were reasons not to reunite, of course, but if their former single-mates Jawbreaker could do it, why not Jawbox? By the time “An Impartial Overview” was finally announced in January, how could impartiality be expected?

Jawbox at The Sinclair

It’s been 23 years since I could conceivably have been impartial about Jawbox. I first knowingly heard the DC band on MTV’s 120 Minutes, presumably with the July 7th, 1996 debut of the human Kerplunk video for “Mirrorful” from their 1996 self-titled album. Their appeal was immediate yet lasting: urgent, melodic guitar rock loaded with lyrical and compositional depth. The reason I taped 120 Minutes was to find music that offered more, that engaged me more, and “Mirrorful” did just that. The distrust of the slanted histories (“Annex and index / Mirror too perfect”) I undoubtedly read that year in social studies resonated strongly, but the combination of J. Robbins and Bill Barbot’s parrying guitar lines, Kim Coletta’s clear and forceful bass, and Zach Barocas’s ingenious fills made me pick up Jawbox on my next CD-shopping excursion. And as was the case with many of the indie/alternative bands I found via 120 Minutes or college radio, the album tracks grabbed me as much, if not more than the lead single. Wrapping my head around the complex rhythms of “Won’t Come Off,” the explosive dynamics of “Desert Sea,” and the lyrical enigmas of “Absenter” kept Jawbox in rotation and prompted purchases of their earlier records, which offered different, but similarly rewarding combinations of immediacy and lasting intrigue.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox announced their break-up on their web site in 1997, but said site offered a literal gateway to like-minded music. Kim Coletta and Bill Barbot ran DeSoto Records (inheriting it from the members of Edsel), and every order I made with DeSoto brought along a new favorite band: Burning Airlines, Shiner, Juno, The Dismemberment Plan, Beauty Pill, Faraquet, and others. In contrast to many other independent labels, their release schedule was manageable and their hit rate was near-flawless. If they released it, I would buy it and almost certainly love it. None of these bands were carbon copies of Jawbox, which makes sense: if musicians were smart enough to like Jawbox (and in turn, be liked by Jawbox), they were smart enough to do something different and compelling on its own accord. (That statement applies to DeSoto bands, but not all of the bands influenced by Jawbox. The deepest reaches of my CD collection will attest that it was quite possible to sound very much like Jawbox without retaining their creative spirit.) It’s worth noting how much timing factors into my Jawbox-centric worldview: if I’d been five years older and/or had cooler friends, I would’ve learned about Fugazi first, then worked my way through the Dischord catalog and found out about Jawbox that way. Instead, the major label gambits of both Jawbox and Shudder to Think introduced them first and encouraged me to work my way back to Dischord.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox’s legacy in 2019 resides primarily within the context of intelligent, inventive guitar rock (that doesn’t skimp on melody), which, as ever, does not dominate the zeitgeist. A flash of mainstream influence came when the Deftones covered “Savory,” but Jawbox’s musical DNA lingers on a smaller scale. Many of my favorites from Exploding in Sound Records’ roster, past and present, display some degree of Jawbox genetics: Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, Two Inch Astronaut. Other bands, like the ever-recommended Hammer No More the Fingers, have come into my radar thanks to J. Robbins’ production credits. Availability is the other side of legacy, and fortunately Jawbox’s records have been reissued by DeSoto via Dischord and remain in print. These reissues are not extravagant, vault-emptying collections. True to the Dischord mindset, these carefully remastered pressings exist to maintain a presence, to allow people to hear the records if they so choose. While it would be nice if Jawbox were the beneficiaries of a major critical re-evaluation, the concept of revisiting these records with fresh ears is a conundrum to me: at no point did I stop listening to Jawbox.

Judging by the first two official shows of An Impartial Overview, I am not alone in maintaining my Jawbox fandom for the last twenty years. After a warm-up show in Baltimore, Jawbox came up to Cambridge to play two nights at The Sinclair. It took time for the venue to fill up the first night—I joked about babysitters running late—but by the time Jawbox hit the stage, personal space was at a minimum. The opening acts for the respective shows deserve mention. Friday’s opener was the Philadelphia-based Second Letter, whose lineup includes Burning Airlines drummer Peter Moffett (who also handles the drums for J. Robbins’ Un-Becoming and Bill Barbot’s new band Foxhall Stacks). The five-piece delivered a layered combination of epic guitar rock, power pop, and early ’00s post-emo. My interest waxed when they leaned into the bigger riffs and waned when I recalled bands like The Gloria Record. The opener for the second night was Brooklyn’s LAPêCHE, whose two most recent releases (the 2017 LP The Second Arrow and the 2019 EP Spirit Bunnies) were recorded by J. Robbins. Vocalist/guitarist Krista Holly Diem maintained a careful balance of melancholy and melody over her band’s considered arrangements, and Spirit Bunnies is worthy, quick introduction.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

As Jawbox launched into “Mirrorful” to start their Friday set—a fitting rewind to my initial introduction—I was immeasurably pleased that all four members were on stage. I’ve seen enough reunited/reformed bands with substitutes to appreciate a full turnout, and all four members of Jawbox were essential to this equation. I’ve seen J. Robbins play some of these songs acoustically, drawing out their melodic depth, but on these nights he was totally galvanized. Bill Barbot had exited from Burning Airlines by the first time I caught that band, so seeing him on stage helped me gain a new appreciation for and understanding of his role in Jawbox. Not only does he excel as a foil (he absolutely nails the falsetto outro of “Cornflake Girl”) and periodic lead vocalist (“Tongue” and “Breathe”), his heavy chord progressions are critical to songs like “Desert Sea.” I tried picturing any other drummer navigating the minefields Zach Barocas laid out on For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox and simply could not; in hindsight it makes perfect sense that Jawbox could not continue after his departure in 1997. Kim Coletta was the stand-out of both evenings. I’d never seen a performer beam with such joy, a contagious feeling that was explained by a second-night anecdote about her current day-job of teaching third-graders. In contrast with wrangling a room full of nine-year-olds, playing bass on stage for the first time in over two decades has to feel pretty great.

In the months leading up to these shows, Jawbox posted numerous photos of their basement rehearsals to their Facebook profile, which assured me of the obvious: they did not take this opportunity lightly. They needed to sound like an active band and they pulled it off. I can safely say I saw Jawbox, not a nostalgia-fueled simulacrum of “Jawbox” (an admittedly narrow distinction that’s nevertheless at the heart of why some reunions fall flat). With over twenty songs each night, the set lists highlighted the depth of Jawbox’s catalog, prompting relatively minor grumbles from even the staunchest devotee over exclusions (three such candidates: “Spit Bite,” “U-Trau,” and “Excandescent”). The lone representative from their debut album was “Grip,” which felt like less of a token inclusion and more of a demonstration of how much they could improve that material. Novelty’s finest moments made the cut, including the updated lyrics for “Static.” For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox (along with essential b-side “68”) correctly comprised the bulk of both evenings, showing how those albums have only improved with age.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Two particular songs stood out. The number of phones raised to record “Savory” confirmed its place as Jawbox’s most beloved song, a sentiment that was upheld by masterful performances both nights. “Tension and release” is the go-to expression, but “Savory” is more tension and relief, the latter represented by the deep exhale of the elongated “Easy now” section. What struck me was how well they underplayed that passage—not only was it quieter with regard to volume, it was gentler in terms of picks hitting strings and sticks hitting drums. Few bands command such restraint, let alone while playing their most cherished song to a rapturous audience twenty-two years after an initial split, and as much as I enjoyed them throwing their bodies into up-tempo tracks like “FF=66” and “Won’t Come Off,” the luxurious lulls in “Savory” stuck with me the most. I couldn’t fathom these sets without “Savory,” and yet shortly after it on both nights, Jawbox pulled a truly unexpected card from their sleeves for the encore: a cover of Drew O’Doherty’s “The Robbery” (here’s my video from night two). J. Robbins had recently relayed his fondness for the song, perhaps tipping Jawbox’s hand, but I doubt O’Doherty—who shared the bill for J. Robbins’ two Boston-area acoustic dates over the last decade—had any expectations of Jawbox playing one of his songs. Merely getting back together was supposed to be the big surprise, not adding a new song to their repertoire, but true to form, Jawbox never settled for simple.

Jawbox’s members were sheepishly grateful for the audience’s ongoing enthusiasm, noting with bewilderment that these shows marked the first time in the group’s existence that they had a multi-night stay at a venue. I suspect that most people in attendance wished that residence could continue longer, both for further opportunities to see the band and to delay the sense that these shows may truly be it. I hesitate to accept such finality, however. Not only will I hold onto the thin shred of hope that Jawbox may re-reunite again down the road, but I know that their records have held up this long, and still offer mysteries to solve and pathways to pursue.

Reviews: Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm’s In the West originally came out on CD and cassette on Seattle’s C/Z Records in 1994. I don’t recall specifically when or where I picked up a copy, but I can feel the accumulated grime on my fingertips from flipping through CD bins searching for it, triggering a Pavlovian response to go wash my hands. In the West lingers in that context, the feverish nightmare of its cut-and-paste cover art sharing an early-’90s aesthetic with countless other denizens of those bins, even as its contents far surpassed its now-forgotten neighbors. A quarter century after its initial release, Comedy Minus One honors In the West with its first-ever vinyl pressing, updating elements of its cover art but retaining the unsettling spirit of the original, blackened layer of dust not included.

This half-measure feels appropriate, as In the West deserves to be brought into 2019 but cannot be fully extracted from 1994. “Dated” is typically derogatory, but context is not, and In the West benefits from understanding its place within Silkworm’s development. After working through a series of demo cassettes during their infancy in Missoula, Montana and move to Seattle, Silkworm released their debut album L’ajre in 1992, followed by a string of seven-inch singles and the …His Absence Is a Blessing EP. There are flashes of excellence during those early years, later collected by Matador in the 2CD Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then: ’90–’94, particularly Tim Midyett’s affable “Slipstream,” Andy Cohen’s defiant “Scruffy Tumor,” and Joel R. L. Phelps’s reference-setting cover of The Comsat Angels’ post-punk classic “Our Secret,” but as the compilation’s self-effacing title acknowledges, they hadn’t figured it all out yet. In the West is the first point when their various influences and individual songwriting voices congealed into a whole, a process that would be furthered just eight months later with the release of its follow-up, Libertine (which is also once again on vinyl via CMO) then blown up by Phelps’s departure.

A congested timeline to be sure, but In the West was a significant milestone. Recorded by fellow Missoula native Steve Albini (dutifully uncredited), stylistically it bears far closer resemblance to early ’80s post-punk, like Mission of Burma or the aforementioned Comsat Angels (Waiting for a Miracle, Sleep No More, and accompanying singles only), than most of their contemporaries. I doubt their adopted homebase of Seattle did them any critical favors; In the West had just enough early-’90s scuzz in its guitar tones for unfocused scribes to absentmindedly sort them into the grunge pile, where their songwriting approaches would be decidedly out of place. (Not that critics, then or now, always bother to differentiate who’s singing which songs.)

The most nagging detriment of In the West’s 1994 date stamp has thankfully been corrected: the remix/remaster job for this reissue is a night-and-day difference from its original release, which suffered from era-typical muddiness and a thin mix that shackled drummer Michael Dahlquist’s considerable power. Starting with 1996’s Firewater, Silkworm’s albums carried a reference-quality combination of space, punch, and clarity—exemplars of Albini’s “the sound of a band in a room” engineering ethos—and this update brings In the West in line with those later recordings, which is no minor achievement. In the West is a dramatically different experience with a palpable rhythm section. It officially sounds like a Silkworm album, not a dry run at one.

In the West, then and now, is a uniquely dark album in Silkworm’s catalog, equally explosive and implosive. With the possible exception of its predecessor L’ajre (I’ll take the zero on the homework of revisiting that album), In the West is Silkworm’s heaviest guitar rock record, with Andy Cohen and Joel R. L. Phelps frequently churning thick chord progressions into clouds of noise, a practice that Libertine largely abandons. These storms are dynamically balanced with unsettling lulls, passages where the guitars vanish and minimalism takes over. There are deep-rooted melodies on most songs, but the up-tempo tracks skew more rocking than overtly catchy, with no earworms like Libertine’s “Couldn’t You Wait” or Lifestyle’s “Treat the New Guy Right.”

Typical to Silkworm’s democratic principles, In the West features a nearly even split between the three songwriters, but my reductive take on their respective approaches—Tim Midyett as the introspective, casually funny romantic, Cohen as the black-humored, semi-historical storyteller, Phelps as the nervy font of psychodrama—hasn’t quite settled yet. Midyett’s four songs are caught between Missoula and Seattle, youth and adulthood, with “Garden City Blues” ruminating on the mixed feelings of a return home, rousing from quiet reservations to unencumbered emotions. “Punch Drunk Five” evokes Montana in the final few lines of its hormonal rave-up, while the rocking “Incanduce” flits between staying, going, returning, and running away before being overcome a monstrous, low-slung riff. The most atypical Midyett contribution is the eight-minute “Enough Is Enough,” which gradually arcs from whisper to roar along with its uncomfortable lyrics about a pushy date. There are moments of humor in these songs, most notably the exasperated “Aw Jesus Christ!” in “Punch Drunk Five,” but Midyett’s search for himself and/or someone else tends to be lonely, over-excited, or frustrated, not poised. The stellar “Garden City Blues” is his best song on In the West, in possession of perspective rather than in pursuit of it.

In one sense, the quick synopsis of Andy Cohen’s songwriting applies to his trio of songs here: pitch-black humor coats almost every line (“Go into the woods and live with the bears / That way you can kill someone and nobody cares,” “Then I grabbed a drowning man / I used him for a raft”), loose narratives put Cohen’s voice in violent, unsavory characters, and why yes, that is a reference to General Pershing in “Dust My Broom.” In another sense, they leave you wanting more than the synopsis: Cohen improved dramatically over the next few albums in his ability to imbue potentially unlikeable characters with affecting depth (see Firewater’s trio of “Slow Hands,” “Tarnished Angel,” and “Don’t Make Plans This Friday”). This concern doesn’t matter much for “Dust My Broom” and “Into the Woods,” whose riffs scorch the earth like Sherman’s March to the Sea, but the slow-boiling “Parsons” never leans out of the lyrical darkness and is most compelling during its instrumental bridge.

It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which Joel R. L. Phelps ratchets up the intensity level on In the West; whether quietly repeating a line in a shell-shocked trance or howling loud enough to wake the neighborhood, Phelps commands dramatic tension like few other songwriters. “Raised by Tigers” (which I wrote about more extensively at One Week // One Band) condenses a wartime novella about the younger brother left at home into five masterful minutes. The initially sparse “Dremate” takes heart-on-sleeve to the utmost extreme, turning over the promise “Bare to you my heart” and its myriad ramifications before bursting into flames with the screamed refrain “Say that you will.” The bass-driven post-punk of “Pilot” closes In the West in an intriguing way, given the hair-raising climaxes of Phelps’s other two songs. The lyrics give full warning of what might come—“When I collide it will be something to remember / When I fall from the light it will be something to remember”—but even as Phelps teases a full-out yelp in the final minute, he pulls back, teetering on the precipice of that fall. Instead of the mammoth chords that shook many of the preceding songs, dual leads snake over the bridge, with Phelps’s wordless vocal accompaniment a welcome touch. Phelps excels on In the West at establishing and maintaining this unblinking level of intensity, but an entire album in this headspace would be draining. Phelps’s songs benefit from the shorter, punchier tracks like “Into the West” and “Incanduce” elsewhere on In the West; on Libertine and his solo / Downer Trio records, his wider range of approaches heightens the truly bristling moments.

To my knowledge, there’s no established hierarchy for Silkworm albums, no consensus ranking. You get to Silkworm albums when you get to them, and getting them doesn’t necessarily mean getting them. It took years (and the life experience acquired during those years) for me to fully appreciate Firewater, which finally clicked and became one of my favorite Silkworm records. Ranking them according to a perceived objective sense of quality misses the point: Libertine is a different experience than Firewater, which is a different experience from Developer, and so on, and the greatness of Silkworm comes from the range of those experiences. There are days when Lifestyle is my favorite Silkworm album and days when It’ll Be Cool is my favorite Silkworm album. This reissue puts In the West fully in the conversation. The songs were always there, but that old mix? It was work, a smudged lens distorting artistic intent. Now In the West is on a level playing field, and I understand its experience in a way that I hadn’t previously. It’s a darker, heavier experience than its brethren, and there will be days when that experience fits and days when it doesn’t. But 25 years after its release, and probably 20 after I first heard it, I get In the West. Maybe there’s still hope for L’ajre.

A valuable postscript: Almost two hours of bonus material is included in the digital download for In the West, and while little of it qualifies as essential listening for people who don’t self-identify as Silkworm devotees, that tag absolutely fits me and my appetite for ephemera, demos, and live recordings. Phelps’ rendition of the Christina Rossetti-penned Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Midyett’s yearning, “UK Surf”-esque alternate take on “Incanduce” (Dahlquist wrote on Silkworm’s web site “I think we tried to play quiet to mock some asswipe club owner, played ‘Incanduce’ in this sort of American Music Club way, and liked it enough to record it”) originally appeared on seven-inches and then Even a Blind Chicken, so they are both the best and most familiar tracks included here. (“Midwinter” is a precursor to Phelps’ more recent contributions to Comedy Minus One head Jon Solomon’s WPRB Xmas marathons, a few of which are available here.) There’s a raucous live rendition of The Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” Five songs are represented via seven direct-to-DAT demo recordings from 1991, including a pair of hyperspeed run-throughs of “Dust My Broom.” There are six individual live songs and a full 1993 set from Chicago’s venerable Lounge Ax, and the performances resonate through the mixed recording quality.

2018 Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 20* Albums of 2018

I’ll put the big link before the blathering: New Artillery Top 20* Albums of 2018.

Given the absurd amount of year-end lists cluttering The Internet, there shouldn’t be any sense of achievement for making one, but this list is the first I’ve finished since 2013. Every year since then I’ve worked on a list and made decent progress toward completion: selection, writing, design, formatting—just not finishing. Part of that failure is par for the course. I’ve gone thousands of words into pieces intended for this site and never shepherded them to the end. A larger part is the prevailing sense that my experience with a year of music will never be “complete” enough to put a stamp on it. I attempt to keep up with noteworthy releases from a year of music, get hopelessly behind, play Polvo’s Siberia a dozen times, realize there are fifty albums I need to hear before making a list, and think “Maybe next year is when I’ll hear everything of note.” But that is impossible, and I’m reasonably proud of continuing to add some previously unfamiliar artists to the stable of favorites who released a new record that I unsurprisingly enjoyed a great deal.

Here are ten additional songs that I enjoyed from this year, listed in alphabetical order.

The Beths / “Future Me Hates Me”

I just heard it this week, but The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me was nevertheless quite close to finding a place on my albums list. I first heard the New Zealand group on Jon Solomon’s 30-hour Christmas marathon on WPRB when he played their cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he mentioned on-air that he still needed to check out their record. I made that same mental note, and Future Me Hates Me is an energetic, hyper-melodic indie pop album. Its title track is by no means the only keeper—I could have picked “Not Running” or “Little Death” without hesitation—but the overlapping vocal melodies in its final chorus are what sold me on the album.

Blanck Mass / “Please (Zola Jesus Remix)”

At this point, Benjamin John Power has been more productive in his solo project Blanck Mass than his ostensible main gig, Fuck Buttons. Over three proper full-lengths, a handful of EPs, and a smattering of worthwhile ephemera, Power has explored arpeggiated-synth ambient, BPM-crazed cardio-fuel, terrifying industrial, and warped-vocal catharsis. The four-track World Eater Re-Voxed EP compiles four remixes of songs from Blanck Mass’s astounding 2017 LP, and the clear highlight is Zola Jesus’s goth-club reimagining of “Please.” It starts off slow, but the crossing vocal lines in the final minutes wipe away memories of the stellar source material.

Christian Fitness / “Hamsterland”

I’m in the midst of writing a longer piece on Andrew Falkous’s one-man-band Christian Fitness (which hopefully will come into existence before 2023), but if you’ve never ventured beyond Falkous’s main gigs of Mclusky and Future of the Left, the closing track from Christian Fitness’s fifth (!) album, Nuance – The Musical is as good of a place to start as any. Driven by an elephantine keyboard lead (at least I assume it’s a keyboard, Falkous does some great work with guitar tones in CF), “Hamsterland” is at once calm and frenzied. “This is the bit at the end,” Falkous announces with a minute left in the song, and the lyrical zingers drop like bombs.

Let’s Eat Grandma / “Donnie Darko”

I first encountered this teenage experimental pop duo’s name on a show flyer at Great Scott in September. As much as I appreciate comma jokes, even outright groaners, I wasn’t expecting to see one while waiting for The Gotobeds to take the stage. A few months later I’d seen enough recommendations for LEG’s sophomore album, I’m All Ears, to finally check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised by the kaleidoscopic array of synth-pop textures. Not all of their ideas work, but it’s hard to complain when there’s such an incredible amount of them crammed into 52 minutes. With apologies to the blown-out hooks of “Hot Pink,” the club dizziness of “Falling into Me,” and the earnest slow-build of “I Will Be Waiting,” the record’s highlight is its eleven-minute closing track, “Donnie Darko.” Taking I’m All Ears’ penchant for sprawl to an extreme, “Donnie Darko” sounds like a previously unimagined collaboration between Lorde and Fuck Buttons.

Llarks / “What We Find Now”

Rehashing Chris Jeely’s resume would take an entire paragraph, but I first heard his music via selections of Accelera Deck’s Narcotic Beats on Epitonic in 1999 (which officially stopped existing this year), and I’ve followed his evolution through any number of sub-genres since then. He’s no less prolific with his latest nom de plume, Llarks (2018 LP Like a Daydream was preceded by the Metallic Summer Sea EP), but there’s a calmness and serenity to ambient compositions like “What We Find Now” that feels like the long-deserved resolution to an often-restless creative journey. My immediate point of comparison is Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which are lofty heights indeed.

Midwife / “Forever”

Madeline Johnston followed up Midwife’s excellent 2017 LP Like Author, Like Daughter with the four-song Prayer Hands cassette, a slow drip of morphine for the bedridden. These lugubrious tracks would make perfect sense on Kranky Records, recalling the label’s “Going Nowhere Slow” t-shirt. You could peel away gossamer layers of fuzz for hours without reaching Johnston’s unaltered vocal tracks, and yet there’s still a clear emotional impact to lyrics like “I want to feel / Forever / I don’t know / I don’t know how” drifting in the ether.

Mogwai / “Donuts”

I’ve been a Mogwai fan for more than 20 years now, so please recognize the restraint needed to stop myself from nudging their soundtrack for the sci-fi movie Kin (which I still haven’t seen) into my top albums list by default. It’s not undeserving of praise, mind you—like 99% of Mogwai’s material, it is extremely listenable, and the final third comprised of moody post-rock explorations “Guns Down” and “Kin” and the up-tempo vocal number “We’re Not Done” is excellent—but on the whole, I prefer last year’s superb Every Country’s Sun. The highlight of the soundtrack comes at its midpoint, with the slowly pulsing synths of “Donuts” evolving into a neon-lit, mid-tempo stomp. It absolutely deserves inclusion on the next update of the six-LP best-of compilation Central Belters (which is now one proper LP and three soundtracks out of date).

Protomartyr / “Wheel of Fortune”

2017’s Relatives in Descent remains in regular rotation, but Protomartyr supplemented that tower-crashing achievement with the four-song Consolation EP. Vocalist Joe Casey is accompanied by The Breeders’ Kelley Deal (an arrangement that previously produced the superlative “Blues Festival”), and “I decide who lives and who dies!” is a chilling refrain for the pulse-of-a-nation-that’s-bleeding-out primacy of “Wheel of Fortune.” Every line cuts deep—“Wrath for sale and it is always Christmas,” “Your time is coming / That is our promise / If you’re not around your children will do,” “A man with a gun and a deluded sense of purpose / A good guy with a gun who missed”—but the wounded desperation of the song’s closing passage is truly haunting: “If you ever smile on me / Please let it be now / I wonder if you’ll fool me this time.”

Savak / “They Are Not Like Us”

Give me another month or two and Savak’s Beg Your Pardon likely makes my albums list, capping off a busy year-plus in which the group has released two LPs (just imagine I made a best-of-2017 list and the politically charged Cut-Ups is on it) along with two additional European singles (“Where Should I Start?” b/w “Expensive Things” and “Green and Desperate” b/w “This Dying Lake”), all of which are recommended. But right now, my brain’s trying to process a huge stack of records and every time I put on Beg Your Pardon, I end up focusing on the greatness its closing track, unintentionally slighting the eleven songs that precede it. “They Are Not Like Us” starts off as a slightly melancholic mid-tempo rock song about being disconnected from friends’ (presumably political) viewpoints, but halfway through, a wordless vocal part emerges over the insistent bass groove, and elegiac horns take command. Eventually everything gives way to those sighing horns, and there’s a minute-long requiem to close the song and the album. I know I need to play the rest of the album, but my desire to hear the final two minutes of “They Are Not Like Us” over and over is taking precedence at the moment.

We Were Promised Jetpacks / “Hanging In”

They released their debut LP slightly later than Frightened Rabbit or The Twilight Sad, but I still associate We Were Promised Jetpacks as part of that generation of Scottish indie rock bands. More meat-and-potatoes rock than either of those groups, WWPJ are now four albums deep into a discography that has occasionally struggled to surpass the ecstatic blast of their first single, “Quiet Little Voices.” Every album has a few songs channeling that electric charge, but The More I Sleep The Less I Dream is their first record that doesn’t lose my attention at some point. It’s tighter than its predecessors, the range of tempos and emotions is more noticeable, and choosing a single highlight is a challenge. I’ll go with “Hanging In,” a song that sways as well as it struts, that eventually builds to an explosive charge, but would have been great even if it hadn’t reached that climax.

Reviews: The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The recent vinyl reissue of Shiner’s mammoth Lula Divinia was a welcome marker of my twentieth year of listening to Allen Epley’s music. Whereas many other musicians in my circa-1997 heavy rotation have either lost my interest or lost their commitment, Epley has been a model of creative consistency with Shiner and The Life and Times. Lineups have shifted, aesthetics have evolved from Midwestern math-rock to sinewy shoegaze, yet the touchstones of Epley’s craft remain resolute: strong vocal melodies, often tinged with melancholy; slyly complex arrangements punctuated with immensely satisfying riffs; and a rhythm section with its own gravitational pull.

With their fifth, eponymous LP, The Life and Times has surpassed its primary predecessor in both duration and output. After switching rhythm sections for 2005’s debut LP Suburban Hymns, the trio of Epley, bassist Eric Abert (Ring, Cicada), and drummer Chris Metcalf (The Stella Link) has remained stable (aside from a brief dalliance with Traindodge’s Rob Smith) and has their approach locked down. Records lean in different directions—the shoegaze sonics of 2006’s The Magician EP, the cinematic scope of 2009’s Tragic Boogie, the brass-tacks immediacy of 2012’s No One Loves You Like I Do, the melodic surges of 2014’s Lost Bees—but each fits firmly within the group’s catalog as a whole. Both last year’s all-covers Doppelgänger EP (worth the download) and this self-titled LP operate in a middle ground of these leanings, assured of their stylistic parameters.

Reliability doesn’t make for a particularly sexy narrative—“Excellent Band Continues to Be Excellent”—but the songwriting on The Life and Times earns the group another long-term residence in the aforementioned heavy-rotation pile. Its bookends are the album’s longest and strongest tracks, each mining a familiar Epley lyrical motif: “Killing Queens” explores the thin line between adoration and obsession with falsetto verses and a roaring, slide-enabled chorus riff, while “We Know” sees midlife ennui haunted by creeping dread, as spaced-out chimes give way to Chris Metcalf’s pummeling outro. “Dear Linda” emerges from its shoegaze cocoon to find bracing clarity via the rhythm section. The colossal bridge riff of “Group Think” recalls Shiner’s finest moment, the ascendant mid-song interplay of “The Situationist.” “Out Thru the In Door” splits the difference between slippery post-punk verses and a sing-along chorus worthy of the Zeppelin smirk in its title. Abert leads the practically dance-ready “T=D/S,” his bass flipping between notes before opening up in the swirling chorus. The alternately dreamy and anthemic “I Am the Wedding Cake” undercuts its romantic overtures with a striking inclusion of “I don’t know you” in the chorus. Only the languid breather “Falling Awake” fails to leave much of an impression, but it does clear the deck for the pulsing instrumental “Dark Mavis.” Nine songs in a tight forty-one minutes, with each song inhabiting its logical residence in the running order.

It would honestly be easier if The Life and Times had a dramatic narrative, if Allen Epley became a hermit after The Egg and reappeared sixteen years later with a long-overdue reminder of what made his music compelling in the first place. But I’ll take the commitment to a regular release schedule and to the road, I’ll take the stack of worthy releases that have maintained my interest in that span. Whether The Life and Times sifts out as the finest in their catalog is up for debate—it’s certainly in the running—but the best thing about the group’s discography is that convincing cases can be made for virtually all of their albums.