Uh, Opaque Laserdiscs?
8 · 21 March 95
There are many people who feel that CDs are, as a music format, actually superior to the old method of digging complicated grooves into thin pieces of vinyl and then running a needle through them. In fact, I'm one of them. As far as I'm concerned, just about everything about CDs is better than LPs, the one possible exception being the size of the cover art, which I regard as a distinctly minor detail. All the "audiophiles" that accuse CDs of being cold and inhuman are, as far as I'm concerned, pig-headed reverse-elitist idiots. If you want your CDs to sound like your LPs used to, buy crappier speakers.
That said, I'm not about to get rid of my turntable, because there are too many crucial pieces of music in my life that are not yet available on disc, and probably never will be. But I have declared my vinyl collection to now be of fixed size, which means that on the rare occasion when I find some old 12" single I'd been looking for, or the like, I require myself to replace some remaining LP with a CD to make room. It's extremely rare that I buy an actual whole album on vinyl. If I didn't have it already, and it's not on CD, I can probably live without it. The four albums in this issue constitute most of the exceptions to this rule from the past year, and are my most recent additions to the list of things whose exclusion from the digital realm seems most lamentable to me.
The Producers: The Producers
Who were the Producers? I'd heard the band cited in the context of the Knack and Shoes, but I don't really know a damn thing about them, and none of my record guides list them. This appears to be their first album, released in 1981, and I have another one (You Make the Heat, 1982). Their name leads me to speculate that the four members are normally producers, and have decided to form a band themselves (sort of a Toto from the other side of the console), but I have nothing to back that up with, and so I assume it's not true. Whomever they are, this album is absolutely vintage 1981 to the last detail, and a buoyant reminder of a sort of skinny-tie power-pop naivete engendered by early post-punk, and long since banished from most of the musical world.
This album wears its goofy pretensions right on its cover, in the silly monochromatic suits the four members are wearing, and the music more than backs up the image. Quick, crisp, square beats and light, steady bass, competent (but not particularly soulful) guitar work, and cheery, burbling keyboards, with ordinary-guy-with-studio-processing-to-make-him-sound-better vocals and simple harmonies. The lyrics are irrepressibly shallow and sheltered ("Life of Crime" features the narrator stealing "a Japanese car" for a covetous girlfriend), with a wholesome good-naturedness to them that makes the Knack sound like Liz Phair.
Why is it, with so little to isolate as remarkable about this album, that I find it so completely endearing? I think most of it stems from a gleeful lack of self-consciousness that seems almost impossible from the vantage point of 1995. I mean, if you're in a band and about to have your album-cover photo shot, wanting to dress up for it is a reasonable impulse. These people aren't consumed with "I must express myself" intensity, they're just thinking "Hey, we could wear cool suits!" The music doesn't address anything meaningful, doesn't press against any particular boundaries, doesn't try to shock you or educate you. It doesn't even seem intent upon making tons of money. Instead, the Producers seem to have set out to write some catchy songs, and arrange them in such a way as to make them as catchy and enjoyable as they could possibly be. Walk into the studio while this record was being recorded, and my bet is that instead of finding an unshaven guitarist practicing his power riffs, you'd find the whole band clustered around a Poly800 or something, trying to decide which "Floot" patch sounds perkier.
The effort shows. This is a positively effervescent album, brimming with enthusiastic pop charm. Does anybody make records with this little concern for "artistic credibility" anymore? Roxette, perhaps, and maybe Boston every decade or two, but this approach to music, as entertainment more than as art, is thoroughly out of fashion. (Ironic that superficiality would go out of fashion.) And, honestly, I think it's a good overall trend: I'll take Nirvana over A Flock of Seagulls any day, Tori Amos over ABBA, Nine Inch Nails over Howard Jones. But don't fool yourself into thinking that nothing has been lost. The recent raft of 80's compilations is driven by the usual shallow mass-nostalgic consumer forces, but it may have the side effect of unearthing some genuinely worthwhile music that would otherwise linger in sad obscurity. The Producers would be deserving beneficiaries. Well, CBS?
Gary Myrick and the Figures: Gary Myrick and the Figures
Gary Myrick I know a little more about, as I grew up in Dallas, and Gary was a local favorite. I think he moved to LA before becoming famous in any way, but that didn't stop my sister and I from feeling a special bond with him. He had a hit of sorts, "She Talks in Stereo" (included here, and reprised on most of Myrick's other albums, it seems), which recently saw new life on both the Valley Girl soundtrack and a Richard Blade compilation, and he later played guitar with John Waite for a while, and went on to be in the short-lived Havana 3AM with ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. This 1980 album, though, is before all that. It's actually, I only now note as I write this, produced by the same guy, Tom Werman, who produced The Producers, and is another CBS release, but I'd already associated the two bands with each other before I noticed that.
Myrick and his band are both deeper and more gimmicky than the Producers, as odd as that combination sounds. The added depth is due to the fact that Myrick is actually a talented guitarist, and the arrangements here make the most of this advantage. Having the guitar to anchor the arrangement around, however, gives the rest of the band more room to experiment, with the result that this album plays a lot more musical tricks than the Producers were probably capable of. There are shifting rhythms, fast keyboard strafings, bass gymnastics and much less-straightforward songwriting. Myrick's voice has more obvious personality than the Producers' singer, by which I guess I mean that he takes fewer pains to disguise its limitations.
The resulting album is a little harder to get into than The Producers. It's too clearly New Wave to not have those filters applied to it, but it's more angular and musically challenging than the likes of the Knack and Shoes. And while on one hand I like it more for its musical accomplishments, on the other hand it's not quite as sweet and innocent as The Producers, and thus satisfies that urge in me less well.
The Comsat Angels: Sleep No More
Contemporaneous with both the aforementioned records, but a world away in attitude, is the Comsat Angels' second album, Sleep No More, one of the things I was most pleased to track down in London on my visit there last summer. After many commercial ups and downs, the latter in rather more abundance, the Comsat Angels are actually alive and well today (last I heard, anyway), though petty corporate trademark hoarding prevents them from operating under their real name here (after an ill-fated attempt to rename themselves Dream Command and dispense with the whole situation outright, they have now returned to using "C.S. Angels" in the US). Polydor appears unwilling to either reissue their first three albums themselves or relinquish the rights to them to someone more amenable to the idea, though, and so for the moment a turntable is still necessary to experience the awesome hush of Waiting for a Miracle, Sleep No More and Fiction (though a BBC Session CD released in 1992 by RPM covers many of the songs, including five of the ten on Sleep No More).
The Comsat Angels' early music is as spare, haunting and atmospheric as The Producers' is slick, danceable and cheerful. In many of these songs, heavily reverbed drums (often used more like orchestral timpani than the usual rock kit's kick/snare/hi-hat interplay) and slow bass form a song's infrastructure, with the guitar and keyboards contributing only isolated nudges to guide it in one direction or another. Stephen Fellows' somber singing is enigmatic and guarded, and the songs, like "Dark Parade", "The Eye Dance", "Goat of the West" and "Diagram", offer few obvious points of entry. For many people, no doubt, this album will simply be too slow, and too empty, too few notes filling too much time, and indeed I think it is the band's most austere and oblique album. Personally, I find it hypnotic and its grasp inexorable, nearly oppressive in its coherence and control. The level of faith needed to make music this devoid of superficial attractions is amazing, which makes the band's later buckling to their second label's synth-pop aspirations that much more understandable, and their continued existence in the face of so much structural adversity doubly amazing. On the other hand, listening to Sleep No More, it seems so clear that the band knows what it is doing, and understands what is special about it, that it's hard to imagine anything derailing them.
I'm also fascinated by how much later music is prefigured here. Fellows jokes in the liner notes to the BBC Sessions album that the Comsat Angels invented Gothic, and the claim isn't obviously wrong. The careful attention to ambient noise here also makes me think ahead quizzically to U2's The Unforgettable Fire, though one could probably make the case that U2 and the Comsat Angels experienced parallel Brian Eno influences, rather than one having influenced the other. And, in a louder interpretation of the aesthetic, the atmospheric surge found in Curve, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and various other related bands (two of my recent favorites being The Rose Chronicles and Mistle Thrush) can be derived musically from this origin (though again whether there is any literal influence, I can't say).
My only complaint about this darkly splendid album is that if there were ever a rock record that would benefit from the clarity of a CD remastering, this is it. The large quiet spaces in this album make the inherent crackle of vinyl painfully apparent.
Primitons: Happy All the Time
Back in the US, power-pop finally learned some survival skills (fewer keyboard-driven musical quirks, ditch the matching outfits, get stranger lyrics, turn the guitars up), a generation of bands reared on Big Star (retroactively, many of them, I suspect) established themselves as the new American pop hope, and, eventually, REM became megastars. Producer Mitch Easter seems to be everywhere you poke around in the slew of bands produced by this South-Eastern power-pop resurgence, and perusing the seldom-visited depths of his credit warehouse you might run across the 1985 debut EP of a band called Primitons. The record in question is excellent, but that was the last I heard of the band for a good long time. Trouser Press lists a second album, though, and so I'd been passively on the lookout for it for some time. Recently, making the rounds of used record stores in a sudden burst of vinyl enthusiasm, I came across a whole crate of copies of this album.
I can see, from looking at it, why crates of copies might remain. There is almost no way, from looking at the packaging of this album, that you would ever guess what sort of music it contains. What few clues you get are that the two principal players have Scandinavian names (Mots Roden and Leif Bondarenko), and one is credited with accordion. From this evidence it would be natural to expect some sort of bizarre Laplander folk music, boasting English lyrics only through the involvement of non-playing lyricist Stephanie Truelove Wright. Only if you read through the smudge that partially obscures the "Guest personnel artists" list on my copy do you run across a single name, Tim Lee, that might lead you to associate this album with the Mitch Easter network (Tim was in another Easter-produced band, the Windbreakers, and if my memory serves me played guitar on tour with ex-dB Chris Stamey when I saw him open a triple bill with the dB's themselves and Mitch's own band, Let's Active).
Once you get the album on, though, it becomes instantly clear what sort of music this is. Despite Mitch's absence, this album is even more gloriously melodic and upbeat than the Primitons' first EP. Mots' driving guitar, Leif's sturdy drumming, and the spotless vocal harmonies between Roden and new bassist Don Tinsley produce a pop as steeped in lush North Carolina bluegrass as the Producers were bathed in LA studio glaze. The difference in attitude between this power-pop and the LA sort, however, is never more evident than on my favorite track here, the slashing "Pope". A complicated mock-naive homage to the Pope (the chorus is, literally, "That's why I forgive the Pope / for everything he's done"), it's lyrically both seditious ("I sometimes dream of him at night / in a forbidden place. / He kisses me for every child / that's born into this mess") and plaintive ("If he could come and live with us / I know he would. / All those jewels in his crown, / he'd throw them to us if he could."), with enough ambiguity that I can't be completely sure it isn't serious, after all. These are not problems one has with "My Sharona" or the Producers' "I Love Lucy" or "Boys Say When, Girls Say Why". Neither would they be likely to end on as mournful and elegant a note as the sad, stately "Little Wail", which closes this album.
Released in 1987, this album seems to have just missed the CD age, which is definitely too bad. I'd trade everything REM has done since Document for it, without a moment's hesitation. Major labels interested in this offer, please email me.