Crayons and Panthers
37 · 12 October 95
Last week, for once, my irrational urge to buy compilations, which usually results in reinforcements for my spare-jewel-case stack, yielded some collections that show both laudable effort on the parts of the compilers and the artists, and potentially enduring value. The prize, clearly, and one of the most impressive compilations I've seen in a long time, is Anon, the second benefit album assembled by Boston music/art studio Castle von Buhler for the Boston AIDS Action Committee. The first one, Soon, which came out late last year, was a striking collection of mostly Boston-area gothic hard-liners that ran very much against the usual garage-heavy current of Boston rock. The CD booklet further distinguished the compilation by pairing the credits for each song with an original illustration by a Boston or NY artist. Anon takes Soon's concept and expands on it brilliantly. The collection runs to two CDs this time, and where Soon's meticulously illustrated booklet was still part of a conventional jewel box package, Anon's packaging is a completely custom-designed gatefold cardboard apparatus holding thirty art postcards in addition to the discs. The bulk of the bands are from Boston again, with most of the contributors to Soon returning, and the artists are again predominantly East Coast, but in both cases there are several notable inclusions from outside the area. There are even three artists important enough that their credits have to mention what label they are appearing courtesy of.
The first of these is Lisa Germano, who contributes the opening song, "Angels Turn to Devils". A somber, meditative piece, with Lisa's frail singing drifting over a muted, textural keyboard backing, it's a beautiful song, and a fitting opening for the set. The card art is Cynthia von Buhler's, a complicated sculpted illustration of an angelic kissing couple, etched with obsessive repetitions of the phrase "I'm no angel", and with a butterfly embedded in one of the figures in a sort of specimen-like diorama. The tension between mystery and confrontation is strong in both Lisa and Cynthia's work, and their spirit permeates this collection.
Adam Buhler's band, sirensong, follow with "Soapbox", on which Michelle Poppleton's ethereal vocals drift over a slow foundation that is industrial in the sense that a factory for manufacturing halos would be industrial; Polly Becker's illustration is a disturbing constructed figure of a woman. Next is the awkwardly named Veronica Black Morpheus Nipple, who perform a jarringly processed, mangled thing called "Friend's Birthday", which seems like more processing than source material for the most part. The illustration, oddly, is a willfully crude Glenn Wurtz painting which either makes some point about hands and torches that I can't figure out, or else features the worst drawings of hands that I've ever seen.
NY band Cake Like is up next, with a garrulous, but brief, barrage of noise called "Billy Boy"; James Kraus' illustration is appropriately ugly. Chainsuck returns the musical mood to the gothic, with the dense, hissing "'Til My Head Explodes", accompanied by a sinister dueling collage. Discordant DC band Edsel then provides "Fortune of Space", whose contorted illustration means nothing to me. Turkish Delight's "Spin" is demented and a little inane. Lumen does the Throwing-Muses-like "Filament", whose grim lyrics match Mick Aarestrup's rough illustration of creatures plummeting into torment (or playing with big, festive pieces of red cloth beside a nice city bridge, it's kind of hard to tell).
The dolorous trudge of fade's "I Lied" is matched with a strangely suggestive device of unknown utility, by John Weber. The pace then picks up a little for Curious Ritual, whose mixture of noisy guitars with slow, methodical drumming and high, wraithlike vocals is a lot like sirensong's. Things then start to get almost catchy and accessible for Astroboy's "Posterchild" and Dmitry Gurevich's photo collage of a big ship, a statue of a warrior maiden, and a boy with a very large head. Sextiles keep things going with "I Hope You Die", a chilling song that I reviewed a while ago as a single. If the song doesn't unnerve you, a close examination of exactly where the figure in Juliette Borda's illustration has been hit with darts will. This leads to another bewitching moment, The Curtain Society's buoyant, New Wave-esque "Gravity", whose lilting chorus has convinced me to buy their album the next time I see it. The first disc then starts to wind down again with Worldseed's distracted "Confessions of a Daydream", and concludes with the bizarre XTC-on-acid of Zutrau's "To a Mouse". This song borders on unlistenable for me, but the illustration, which combines what I believe is Abraham Lincoln with a mouse that has either painted itself green and then hung itself, or else hung itself and then been painted green (by Abe?), is pretty cool.
Disc two opens with "Tuba Edit", a pulsing ambient percussion/synthesizer groove from Eardrum, illustrated by a very odd wood box featuring old fashioned anatomical illustrations of hearts and some iron phalluses with wings on them whose purpose (or significance) is not immediately apparent. Next is the set's one self-illustrated piece, a short musical interlude composed of synth washes and samples of a Tibetan sheep herder (it says) and some roosters, illustrated by a religious-looking Far-Eastern contraption adorned with jigsaw-puzzle pieces and some extraneous diodes and resistors whose crime against the artist is unspecified. Women of Sodom piece together an incomprehensible structure of samples and dub called "Boots (aka The Accountant Song)", illustrated by a particularly ominous Melissa Beck picture.
Things smooth out some for the dreamy "Splendour", by Felidae Chant, which even features some nice E-bow. The gurgling "Lips Acquire Stains" (by symbn prjct, who seem to have suffered an unfortunate name mishap since appearing on Soon as Symbion Project), however, returns to dire moods, illustrated by a very unsettling drawing of a beast who, for various reasons best not detailed, probably doesn't lead a wholly comfortable life. An oddly straightforward winged man built out of bark and feathers (okay, he does have a miniature heart impaled on a fly-fishing lure, but in the context of the rest of this set's art, wings and an impaled heart are practically naturalistic) by Susan Farrington accompanies a Cocteau-Twins-like piece by An April March. Cinnamon's "Rocketship Launch" is another conceptual soundwork, illustrated by Jordan Isip's technically inaccurate notion of where, on the head, the neck attaches. Frank Smith's "Maze" doesn't move me one way or the other, but the illustration for it, a painting by Eric White of some hideous gnarled creatures on wheels wearing black-and-white movie-star masks with no apparent regard for how unconvincing the disguises are, is one of my favorites of the set.
I also really like Bina Altera's indistinct building and nude obscured by a blizzard of birds, and the Moors' accompanying multi-ethnic dirge "Belen-Guard" is one of the collection's more impressive compositions (though I admit to having a weakness for any song that credits "haunting, wailing and channeling the Celtic pantheon" among its elements). "5 Years Later", by One of Us, is also noteworthy, even if it does have a dangerously close resemblance to NIN's "Hurt" in several places. Rabid Ear Test's "Red Is the String" is another nice ambient soundscape, though what Mark Fisher's blocky illustration has to do with it escapes me. I really like Peter Wyckoff's enigmatic four-panel meditation on the number 55, though, and there's something charming about the awkward lurch of Richard Bone's song "Overstated Papers", which reminds me pleasantly of the obscure early-Eighties band Gardening by Moonlight. (Anybody who knows what happened to them, please write.)
Eardrum squeezes in another track, the simmering "I'm Misleading", which gives Cynthia von Buhler an excuse to include another illustration where she uses overlaid writing for texture, an evil-looking spider replacing the butterfly from the earlier piece. Crank the volume for the penultimate track, so as to extract the most neighbor-worrying value from the frighteningly orgasmic grunting and moaning in Out of Band Experience's otherwise beepy "Alien Android Succubus (Droid Remix)". And the collection finally shudders to a halt with The Borg's spooky "Outer World", and Nataliya Gurshman's abstract, streaky mixture of purples and yellow-greens. If neither gothic pallor nor ambient experimentation appeal to you, probably this collection won't be to your tastes, but if you're up for a couple of hours of spirited noise from bands you've mostly never heard of, and about the coolest visual art you're likely to find in a music store, then this set has the rare virtue of never being boring, even when it's occasionally bad, and for that I'm inclined to heap upon it all the unused compilation-kudos that most of its genre peers have been busy not earning.
various: Red Hot + Bothered
However, it would be a shame to have no kudos left over for Red Hot + Bothered, another product of the prolific AIDS-benefit Red Hot Organization that assembled Red Hot + Blue, Red Hot + Dance, and Red Hot + Country. This one's intricate liner art consists of a giant sex-questionaire board-game that is fun to read, and might be fun to play, only not sitting by myself in front of a computer writing music reviews, thank you.
The music is an impressive selection of eminently credible underground figures, some of whom I even recognize. Actually, anybody who's ever heard Guided by Voices will hear through the pseudonym Freedom Cruise in about five seconds (even if the song title, "Sensational Gravity Boy", wasn't itself a give-away), Kim and Kelley Deal's presences notwithstanding. There's a band called Built to Spill, so I'm guessing that Built to Spill Caustic Resin features members of that and members of a band called Caustic Resin, but I could be wrong. They do a nice piece of half-speed punk called "Still Flat". Lisa Germano makes another compilation appearance with the lilting "The Mirror Is Gone", which sounds like a good outtake from her 1994 album Geek the Girl. Noise Addict turns in a shuffling, perky, low-fi "Mouthwash". Lou Barlow's "Folk Implosion" does the self-descriptive "Indierockinstrumental". The Verlaines buzz through a noisily cathartic "Some Fantasy". Liquorice put in a jangly relationship saga called "Little League". A band I've never heard of called Babe the Blue Ox do a throbbing, robo-bluesy track called "Hazmats". Juicy do a rough, but pretty, "Mainland China". The Sea and Cake's "The Fontana" is delicate and jazzy. The Cradle Robbers, a duo featuring Lois Maffeo, who usually performs as just Lois, play a restrained acoustic piece called "Sotto Voce". Jay Farrar and Kelly Willis plunk through a mournful Richard-and-Linda-like country rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues". The Grifters, who I haven't been crazy about before, do a pretty cool song called "Empty Yard". East River Pipe, about whom I've only read, fails to convert me with the somewhat cheesy "Miracleland". Heavenly bounces happily to "Snail Trail". Future Bible Heros, featuring Stephin Merritt from Magnetic Fields singing (and some other Casio aficionado who might as well be Stephin doing the music), do a wonderful "Hopeless", which makes perfect use of Merritt's resonant voice and rococo keyboard arrangements. Flying Nuns, a Boston band who haven't put out nearly enough recordings to suit me, take a step towards remedying that with the abrasive, and rousing, "Servicing Man". And the album ends on a long ambient piece by Gastr Del Sol (which includes Jim O'Rourke, who I know from elsewhere).
This compilation doesn't have the overwhelming level of personal commitment evident in Anon, nor its thematic consistency, but it's got some fine music, and you get some good indie bonus points for knowing these bands. Maybe there's something to this compilation thing, after all.
various: sing HOLLIES in reverse
Tribute albums are an even more suspicious sub-genre than compilations in general. I've bought several, and the only ones I listen to repeatedly are the two Richard Thompson ones. And since musical history begins for me in 1978, all I could have told you about the Hollies before buying this were that they were big many years ago, and I'd probably recognize some of their songs if you played them for me. But this tribute had tracks by the Posies, Tommy Keene, the Loud Family, Mitch Easter, the Continental Drifters and Jon Brion, which represents enough of the American power-pop aristocracy to convince me to buy just about anything.
The album leaves me with the thought, heretical for me, that I might actually go out and buy a Hollies album. Either these twenty-one artists are all brilliant reworkers, or the Hollies wrote some superb pop songs (possibly both). The Posies do a dramatic, deliberate "King Midas in Reverse" to open the proceedings. Tommy Keene makes "Carrie Anne" sound like one of his. The Loud Family ease through a version of "Look Through Any Window" that sounds like one of Scott's songs slowed down by about half. Steve Wynn turns "The Air That I Breathe" into a morose half-spoken lament that eventually speeds up and adds Mary Lee Kortes' harmony for a haunting chorus. Mitch Easter, in full one-man-band mode, which I've really missed, does an inspired "Pay You Back with Interest", which flips between snappy choruses and distended, oddly produced verses. Cub has a song. Kristian Hoffman does a gloriously psychedelic Earle-Mankey-produced version of "I'm Alive". Flamingoes rattle through a garagey "Water on the Brain". E makes "Jennifer Eccles" into a muted, glossy synthesizer piece. The Jigsaw Seen's "On a Carousel" reminds me of both the Posies and the Three O'Clock. Dramarama's John Easdale does "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress", a song I always thought was CCR's, somehow, and which I like in neither its original form, nor this one. Bill Lloyd and the Nashville Pop Co-Op adorn "Step Inside" with sparkling harmony and some classic jangly Southeastern power-pop guitars. Some people from Ivy, the Candy Butchers and the Kustard Kings conspire as Losers Lounge to do an unpleasantly loungey "After the Fox". Wondermints, sounding like a treblier Velvet Crush, do "You Need Love". The Sneetches do a organ-lined retro "So Lonely". The Continental Drifters turn their various talents on "I Can't Let Go". Carla Olson sings a pained duet with songwriter Mikael Rickfors on "Touch". Andrew Sandoval, doing "Heading for a Fall", also reminds me of the Posies. Material Issue surge through a distorted "Bus Stop". Shakin' Apostles do "Dear Eloise". And Ex-Grays leader Jon Brion turns "Sorry Suzanne" into an eight-minute excuse to show off his collection of bizarre instruments and studio tricks. I'm only sorry that Michael Quercio, Polara, Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet, the Connells, Smart Brown Handbag and Aimee Mann aren't anywhere in evidence. This could have been phenomenal, instead of just excellent.
As with the My So-Called Life soundtrack, a few months ago, I really only bought this disc as a gesture of support for the show, which I like. It turns out to be a surprisingly interesting disc. There's a whole run of songs in the middle I could personally do without (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Lou Reed, k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies and REM), but Paul Westerberg does a manic version of Jonathan Edwards' "Sunshine", the Pretenders do a nice (and straight-faced) "Angel of the Morning", Grant Lee Buffalo warp the Beach Boys' "In My Room", remixer Robin Goodfellow turns Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" into a percolating dance track, Westerberg tosses in a choice original called "Stain Yer Blood" and the Rembrandts do the theme song in a short TV version, a full version, and a "bonus" instrumental version. There's even a Hootie and the Blowfish track, which I was dreading, as I regard them as the loathsome standard bearers of the insidious New Mildness, but it turns out to be a cover of "I Go Blind", an old song by 54-40, this Canadian band that I didn't know anybody but me ever listened to down here south of the parallel. A decent cover, even. Bits from the show follow all the odd-numbered tracks, and while Friends is kind of odd as an audio experience (when I first saw the show my comment was that I could watch Courteney Cox for half an hour, but only with the sound off; later I worked up to listening in, as well), the excerpts at least show some effort, which the MSCL soundtrack demonstrated none of. And Phoebe's short medley ("Snowman / Ashes / Dead Mother") is priceless, especially the way her remonstrative "Excuse me. Yeah, noisy boys?" here leads directly into Westerberg's song. It's an open question what any of this music other than the theme has to do with the show, but if the music is its own excuse, who cares? A blatant TV tie-in turns out to be earnest and even worthwhile. As Janet would say, Oh. My. God.