Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Rocket From the Tombs
Smog Veil : 2004
Certain people in your life change everything where music is concerned. Back in school, one such person, for me, was the guy who went on to become the novelist Jim Lewis (Sister, Why the Tree Loves the Axe, etc.). We couldn't get along as individuals or as would-be scribes (I quit speaking to him for a couple months, e.g., when he insulted Samuel Beckett), but he certainly had an amazing record collection. Before meeting Jim, I was probably only punk rock in an obvious way (Pistols, Talking Heads, Dolls, Television, Patti Smith), but after I met him, after I heard some of his records, I was an entirely different kind of music enthusiast. Jim had The Ascension by Glenn Branca, and he had The Mumps and The dBs and The Cramps, and most importantly one night (while drinking) he played for me "Dub Housing," a song by Pere Ubu. Twenty-five years after, it's hard to recreate the feeling of first hearing that song, near to its genesis. What remains of that night is the bass-heavy groove, the intensely paranoid lyrics, the free-jazz sax, and the weird chanted backing vocals ("We know, we know"). The song scared the shit out of me in a deep, existential way. Soon, I became obsessed with everything Pere Ubu, at least that first fertile period thereof (best documented, these days, on the box set called Datapanik in the Year Zero).
I followed Pere Ubu through their not entirely rewarding later phases, where there was always be a good song or two. But this later iteration seemed tame. I longed for, and still long for, that early, uncanny, nightmarish sound. So upon reading about the proto-Ubu band known as Rocket From the Tombs, I got really excited-especially when the old demos were released a couple years ago on The Day the Earth Met The . . . , I was immediately an owner. This release was followed by the first tour of the "reunited" band, which as far as I can surmise meant that Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) located the original bass player, Craig Bell, drafted a young, mohawked double-kick drummer, and hired Richard Lloyd to fill the lead guitar spot vacated by Peter Laughner, who'd long ago drunk himself into the grave. They played a couple of New York dates, and I went with my band mate and friend David Grubbs.
The show was a revelation, not only because RFTT dragged out all these amazing old chestnuts like "Final Solution," that were later definitively recorded elsewhere, but also because they had souped up the early punk attack so that it sounded more like Midwestern hardcore from the mid-eighties. The guitars were loud and fast, and the drummer was ridiculously virtuosic. David Thomas seemed cranky and sat through some songs in the middle of the stage. He had the lyrics in hand, to avoid forgetting. Yet despite appearances you would never mistake this band for late-middle-aged road warriors. They played like they had a lot to say and believed in it fervently. And the album that they later recorded of this lineup playing the antique material, Rocket Redux, is my favorite of the spate of recent "reunion" projects. This album loves the old songs, but finds ways to make them sound contemporary without pandering.
Somehow, this reminds me of a story of my school days with Jim Lewis. We were drinking a lot of Soave Folinari back then, because you could get it for $2.32 at the store near campus. The bottle had a screw top. It tasted awful, especially as you got toward the bottom. We also liked generic beer, which you could find for about $1.30 a six-pack, but generic beer felt entirely poisonous afterward. One night we'd pooled our remaining resources to acquire one final bottle of Soave Folinari. We were on our way to visit another friend, and he lived in one of those cinder block dorms that you found on campuses in those days. I was carrying the precious bottle. It was concealed in the brown paper bag favored by local package stores. As I was running up the stairs in the cinder block dorm, I somehow managed to knock the bottle of wine on the metal banister in the stairwell, administering a fatal crack. The bag started to leak. I alerted Jim to the situation, and we formulated an emergency plan. We banged on the first door we could find, shouted that there was a situation, and then barged into this room where two studious looking guys were doing their homework. "Got a strainer?" we yelled. I barely knew what a strainer was in those days. But these guys, amazingly, did have a strainer, as well as the requisite cereal bowl. Jim and I then began the process of straining the remaining Soave Folinari into the cereal bowl, as the two studious guys watched skeptically. We were not going to lose that bottle of wine. When we had done the best we could in decanting, we carefully examined the cereal bowl full of inexpensive Italian white wine, to insure it didn't have too many glass shards in it. However, in the bottom of the bowl there were a few slivers of faintly tinted glass. Shards big enough to seem, well, digestively unwise. I looked at Jim, Jim looked at me, and then, with an audience of studious college guys, we began passing the cereal bowl back and forth, tipping it just so, to avoid swallowing glass.
Grasshopper Records, 2004
Bill Gage records under one name, like a lot of contemporary R&B hipsters. But his single name is probably not a marketing gambit. "Bill" is as much of his own name as Bill can write, in fact this is all that Bill Gage can handwrite, and this recording is nothing if not faithful to the contours of Bill's life. It's worth noting that Bill Gage is also, among other things, the younger brother of a guy I went to high school with, John Gage, who himself records as "Bleat," and who runs the record label that released this album. On his own, John Gage makes eighties-influenced pop songs that sound a little like Cocteau Twins, Sisters of Mercy, or Bauhaus.
There's one other bit of relevant factual information, of a sort that would be disingenuous to conceal, so let me note that Bill is, according to the present terminology, learning disabled. Bill is a person with Downe's syndrome. And it is Bill who does all the singing and lyric writing on Bat Man. In fact, this recording finds its origin in the fact that Bill, as his brother is first to point out, loves to perform. The album, therefore, amounts to a carefully calibrated interaction between two brothers. And the result is one of the most honest and most vulnerable recordings I've heard in a long time. Bill, despite his somewhat placid demeanor (more information on an attendant video is to be found below), has some demons, and on songs like "Big Foot," they all come out. Much of this tune features Bill, in an irate and terrified yowl, chanting Big Foot's name. As elsewhere on the album, it is sometimes unclear what exactly he has on his mind. However, he can also be quite straightforward, with disarming results: ("Dead meat, dead meat, dead meat"). Bill likes to count off. He also likes to tell everyone when he is done singing. He whispers, he feints, he shouts, he mourns.
John Gage, the preeminent session musician on Bat Man, is despite his training unconstrained by pop music. He's concerned instead with making backing tracks that will amuse and divert Bill. As a result, Bill is free to roam, and the sonic density of the backing tracks is what determines his method of inquiry. On heavy songs, like the Sabbath-esque "Steve Pepper," Bill manages some kind of rhythmical attack that seems to be cued to the high hat or the hammer-on guitar solo in the middle eight. Bill's strange sense of rhythm is never wide of the beats, it's remarkably sophisticated, and his melodies are very, very punk. Usually just a few notes clustering around a root note or a simple harmony.
The big question, of course, would be what is the level here of consensual participation by Bill Gage. Since I happened to know John Gage well when we were teenagers, and since I saw firsthand some of the confusion he felt about Bill, I know that John wouldn't make a move except out of love for and fealty to Bill. John is working hard to keep Bill amused, trying to find sounds that will provoke him, in the best ways, and the uncanny result becomes more and more unmistakable on repeated listens. Few are the albums that are as generous. That doesn't make Bat Man an easy listen, however. It's an album about how the human animal is musical when intention is not a significant feature in the process. Bill Gage has few musical intentions, that is. But he has an ear and he has a heart, and when he opens his mouth, something very tender happens. So much so that I have frequently wept while listening to this recording and lamented that I am all but incapable of being as open as Bill is here, or as devoted as his brother.
To drive home the point that John Gage is working here at the service of Bill, I do recommend that you go and watch the video for "Big Foot," at the Grasshopper Records web site, because there's a moment in it when John is interrupted attempting to film Bill. This is out on the street. A neighbor complains about the noise, and then this neighbor further complains that John is "embarrassing" Bill. John, harried, and irritated at the suggestion, immediately turns to his brother and says, "Bill, am I embarrassing you?" To which Bill immediately answers "No," whereupon the singer returns to performing his lead vocalist duties. The concentration and joy in the vocalist as he does so makes most contemporary rock musicianship seem callow by comparison.
Upon releasing Bat Man, the Gage brothers embarked on filming a movie, Elvis Dream Attack, starring Bill in the Elvis role. They're still working on it. This is one of the things in life I'm looking forward to.
From English Planes
Notes on Hannah Marcus composed by me run the risk of nepotism, or conflict of interest, because Hannah is my collaborator in a band, the Wingdale Community Singers. But I'm willing to run this risk if, for a second, I can briefly extol the virtues of Hannah Marcus, solo artist. I met Hannah when Bar/None Records was faithlessly wooing me for I know not what purpose, despite my lack of musical product or prowess. Glenn, the proprietor, sent me Hannah's album, Black Hole Heaven, along with some other stuff. Black Hole Heaven, unlike the other Bar/None releases, had some of the most devastating songs I had heard in long while, most of them about romantic failure and drug abuse. The songs were like Leonard Cohen, but they were angrier. Well, the music also had something to do with the kind of jazz-inflected strains that you find in Joni Mitchell, Rikki Lee Jones, or maybe Tom Waits. "Stars From the Side," for example, in which the narrator demands that a lover who has spurned her attend to her version of the events, is one of the most hopeless and outraged love songs anyone has written in the last twenty years.
After hearing the album, I wrote Hannah a fan letter, and we became friendly. After we became friendly, we started playing together. I then became well acquainted with the dark interiors that are the daily life of this, the most gifted songwriter I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Hannah can whip off a jazz ditty on piano in ten minutes, play folk guitar as well as anyone in Brooklyn, and dabbles in fiddle, banjo, oboe, harmonium, and just about anything else. At the same time, she can barely find her house keys, and her ill-behaved dog is the scourge of anyone who goes over to her place. She is often miserable about love, doesn't feel like she is doing anything worthwhile with her life, wants to buy a house somewhere and never does, and is a total failure at getting gigs. She is loveable, impossible, insecure, imperious, generous, undependable, pissed off, and she always has unpaid parking tickets. She is the third generation on her father's side to compose, and like John Gage, she has an impaired sibling, who has long been institutionalized. Her mother is a well-known painter and sculptor who also plays banjo.
Hannah finished this album, From English Planes, a while ago. It was mainly recorded up in Montreal (like her last release, the very excellent Desert Farmers), on her own dime, with members of A Silver Mt. Zion, and it is noteworthy for the overwhelming feeling of something splendid and luminous falling apart. There are great string parts on the album, and wind instruments, backing vocalists tumbling in and out of tune, strange things scraping against hard surfaces, sly key changes, beautiful melodies everywhere, and grim, heartbroken lyrics, despite the fact that Hannah alleges she is an inconsistent lyricist with nothing left to say.
Nobody seems to have the pluck to release this record! I am using this space, therefore, to tell you how this is one of the best singer-songwriters recording these days! Whether by fate or anomie, she is almost entirely unable to get her songs out to the public, but whichever the cause I would like to reverse it. Would this happen with Townes Van Zandt? Leonard Cohen gets fleeced by his accountant, and it's enough to stoke a revival! Here, on the other hand, is a songwriter who actually merits comparison with either, and she's healthy and working, and she can't get anyone to release the songs! I write these lines not only to say how much I care about this musician, but also to say that this turn of events is senseless to me! Ashlee Simpson can release an album that is a waste of the petrochemicals required to make it, and on this point everyone agrees! No one thinks that Ashlee Simpson's career has any purpose but helping to insure the stock valuation of some multi-national, or to further her latest elective cosmetic procedure!
It's hard to live in the world if these are its dimensions! I walk around and I feel like this world is a sequence of doping opportunities! You are doped by television, you are doped by superhero movies, you are doped by a twenty-one year old with too much eye makeup and a nose job, you are doped by nationalist feel-good rhetoric and literalist biblical commentary, you are doped as the bombs fall nearby. Meanwhile, the one thing I can't bear to lose, which is songwriting, looks like it is already lost, and if, in dark times, these three albums are obscurantist selections, selections from the jukebox of crabbed, middle-aged nostalgia, so be it. Better a once heroic form, now archeological, than the half-hearted attempts of frauds.
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Rick Moody's Right Livelihoods: Three Novelas is forthcoming from Little, Brown in June.
Labels: rick moody, rock, writer's week
posted by Alex