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Someone Who Looks Just Like Koo Stark
Mary Lou Lord: Martian Saints
I rarely have any facts to break up the opinions and rhapsodies this column usually consists of, but in the case of Boston street-busker Mary Lou Lord, I can personally testify that "street-busker" is not something her record company publicist (does Kill Rock Stars even have a publicist?) thought up. I've seen her around Boston and Cambridge several times, and I particularly enjoyed finding her, shortly after her 1995 debut album came out, playing in the alcove of Sola, a terminally pretentious Harvard Square clothing store, right across the street from the Cambridge branch of HMV, and gleefully insisting to an audience of perplexed tourists that she really did have a record out, which you could buy there. Come upon unexpectedly on a street corner, she's an arresting figure. Where most Cambridge buskers stick to the standard formula of energetically stripping Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel standards of all vestiges of rhythm, Lord mines a repertoire of songs you've probably never heard of, which she sings in a tentative quaver, accompanied by guitar strumming so restrained that you sometimes have to watch closely to be sure she's actually hitting the strings. She seems almost paralyzed by shyness, except that somehow she's standing there, in public, singing to people standing four feet away from her.
There's little trace of this frail persona on the title track of this five-song EP, though. Backed by a three-piece band that includes Bevis Frond auteur Nick Saloman, and Lord herself playing a giddy Theremin, she flashes through Saloman's plaintive, ringing pop ode to dreams of alien deliverance in a breathy voice whose character reminds me strongly of Juliana Hatfield's in the early days of the Blake Babies, before she really learned to sing, but whose obvious belief in the song transforms its technical inadequacies for me into disarming earnestness. There's something about the distracted, fading elusiveness of her performances of other people's songs that fascinates me. It's neither imitation or interpretation, it's more like she's hearing the songs inside her head, singing along to herself as if unaware there's a microphone on. This treatment tends to strip songs of anything you could call artifice, which leaves little behind but their revealed souls. Her reverence for her material comes through most clearly when she ditches the band and goes back to just her voice and her guitar. Pete Droge's "Sunspot Stopwatch" is hesitant and uncertain, and Peter Laughner's "Cinderella Backstreet" ends up sounding like an anthem grown mortally weary with its own flourishes. Fittingly, she sounds much more focused on the one original here, the jangly "Salem '76", again with Saloman and a drummer in support. But focused isn't the same as better.
Papas Fritas: Hey Hey You Say
Similar affectless good cheer infuses the advance single from fellow Boston low-fi-pop disciples Papas Fritas' second album, Helioself. Burbling with hand-claps, beepy synthesizer noises, whirring peals of sitar, artless "yeah!"s, rattling maracas and solid snare thumps, "Hey Hey You Say" falls somewhere between a de-fuzzed Guided by Voices and Failure-era Posies without quite as much vocal polish, yet it also has a few hauntingly spare moments when it momentarily reminds me of early Comsat Angels. The languid b-side, "Just to See You", doesn't seem nearly as adventurous or interesting.
Girls Against Boys vs Guided by Voices: 8 Rounds
Guided by Voices' own latest appearance comes on the second half of this split benefit live EP shared with Girls Against Boys, recorded from a Washington, DC, radio show. Girls Against Boys, sounding a little like Fugazi run through a My Bloody Valentine filter, open the set with an insistent, throbbing "Learned It", the stiff, venomous "Vera Cruz", a pulsing, noisy "Disco 666" and the distorted half-RHCP-, half-Morphine-sounding attack song "Kill the Sexplayer", but none of these songs nudge my Girls Against Boys ambivalence one way or the other. GbV's set starts with a crashing two-minute sprint through "Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy", on which Pollard is almost totally submerged under the pounding drums and roaring guitars, which doesn't seem to faze him. "Motor Away" is slower and more self-conscious, as if the band is uncomfortably aware that they're playing one of their "hits", but they recover quickly with a raucously messy "My Valuable Hunting Knife" whose martial cadence refuses to cede an inch to groove, a surging rendition of "Shocker in Gloomtown" awash in murky guitar and punctuated with dynamic skips as erratic as anything they manage in the studio, and a hoarse, rock-ish uncredited fifth track which I can't place, but which sounds like a cover of something.
various: KCRW Rare on Air, Vol. 3
GbV also have a cameo on the third volume of KCRW's Morning Become Eclectic radio-appearance series. For once, though, the recording engineer doesn't appear to have been bribed to produce the standard vocals-buried Guided by Voices mix, and thus this version of "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", produced the way most bands would do all their material, leaves Pollard uncharacteristically exposed. He sounds fine, and listeners who aren't previously familiar with GbV won't know there's anything unusual about the arrangement, but fans will find it jarring, and so potentially intriguing. Otherwise, I found this the least impressive of the three Rare on Air volumes. The first one had a creepy Leonard Cohen poem and Tori Amos' immortal "Silent All These Years" at one end and David Wilcox's haunting "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song" at the other, and the second one had a blistering version of MC 900 Ft. Jesus' "The City Sleeps" and Aimee Mann's mesmerizing "I've Had It", but the only things I feel much about here are Cowboy Junkies' murmuring cover of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" and Ben Folds Five's bouncy (but basically album-like) "Alice Childress".
Tori Amos: Silent All These Years
Speaking of Tori, "Silent All These Years" actually just got a new single release, in promotional conjunction with Tori's Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The single, which seems to me to miss an obvious opportunity to release a more substantial part of Tori's benefit concert for RAINN and earn more money through the sales, includes only the concert's performance of "Silent All These Years" itself. It's a particularly good rendition, though, Tori playing with the tempo of the piece even more drastically than usual, and the flimsy slide-tray packaging and short running-time mean that US buyers, at least, should be able to find it cheaply and easily.
Veruca Salt: Volcano Girls #1
Falling in love with Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You guaranteed that I'd start buying their singles, too, but so far I've found nothing on them even remotely comparable to the irrepressible stadium pop of the album. "Good Disaster", the first of the pair of non-album b-sides accompanying the album version of "Volcano Girls" on part one of this single, is a slight, quiet, gentle acoustic strum, with Gordon and Post trading airy vocals and "doot doot" harmonies. "Sleeper Car", though not much more like anything on the album, is at least an impressive extended crescendo that builds from an Aimee-Mann-like intro to a cathartic, roiling conclusion that could easily be an excerpt from an especially loud Posies song.
Veruca Salt: Volcano Girls #2
The slow "Pale Green", on the second disc, which oscillates from lilting, waifish verses to thick, buzzing choruses, is even more epic, but sonically, with its blunt, bass-heavy guitar riffs, it's more in keeping with Blow It Out Your Ass It's Veruca Salt than anything on Eight Arms to Hold You. And the measured, deliberate "One More Page of Insincerity Please", despite a title that sounds stolen from the Loud Family, sounds to me like a half-formed out-take from Maria McKee's Life Is Sweet.
various: Come and Get It
Buoyant power-pop's royalty and foot-servants alike turn out for Copper Discs' tribute to Badfinger. The Loud Family sound strangely uncomplicated on "We're for the Dark", Adrian Belew does a deadpan Beatlesque "Come & Get It", the Knack sound entirely Knack-like doing "No Matter What", 20/20 push "Day After Day" a ways down the pop-rock axis, Aimee Mann's kaleidoscopic b-side version of "Baby Blue" is classic, Ken Stringfellow's side project the Solteens contributes an unhinged acoustic demo of "Know One Knows", and the Plimsouls turn "Suitcase" into stage-jam blues. The rest of the disc, populated with people you probably haven't heard of, plays like a Yellow Pills compilation with better songwriting. Which is, really, a perfectly good idea for an album. Even if it still all basically sounds like the Beatles to me.
Slingbacks: The Boy Who Wanted... #1
Mitch Easter-produced Irish punk-pop band Slingbacks continue to fuel my eagerness to hear their album, All Pop, No Star, with another single, this one substantially more controlled than "No Way Down", its explosive predecessor. A thick, ringing, mid-tempo anthem, "The Boy Who Wanted..." sounds to me like Sleeper after a long night of listening to Byrds records. The evocative "Magdalene Laundries", the first part-one (the orange one) b-side, has a very similar character, with perhaps a touch of old 10,000 Maniacs folkiness around the edges, cloaking the lyrics' bitter blasphemies in melancholy restraint. The noisy "Transmission: First Kiss", on the other hand, with its squalling guitar interjections and clipped spoken passages, sounds more like a slow Elastica.
Slingbacks: The Boy Who Wanted... #2
The second single (blue) encourages Elastica comparisons further by adding the jerky, blaring "Chrysanthemum" and a cover of Wire's "Outdoor Miner". "Chrysanthemum", with its monster blues riffs, half-shouted choruses and hissing cymbals, is perhaps like Elastica trying to be AC/DC, but the Wire cover, which smoothes over the song's strident repetition with warm guitars, harmony vocals and dry, snappy drums, sounds little like Wire or Elastica.
Whipping Boy: We Don't Need Nobody Else #1
I'm also belatedly catching up on singles by Slingback's country-mates Whipping Boy, whose album Heartworm I've found myself going back to more and more often lately. Part one (orange) of the 1995 UK single for their claustrophobic relationship anthem "We Don't Need Nobody Else" adds two non-album tracks, "Disappointed" and "Here I Am". "Disappointed", with its rumbling drum tattoos and chanted (but unaccented) verses, sounds more like early New Model Army than the atmospheric and thoughtful album. The howling "Here I Am" could be a Killing Joke demo, which is fine if you like Killing Joke demos, but not why I think Whipping Boy is important.
Whipping Boy: We Don't Need Nobody Else #2
Part two (purple), more interestingly, provides acoustic versions of the album tracks "Twinkle" and "We Don't Need Nobody Else". "Twinkle", with shuffling drums and moody strings, but without the album version's ragged guitar blasts, is nearly unrecognizable. "We Don't Need Nobody Else" retains more of its structure, some of the song's central roar bleeding through into the ostensibly acoustic arrangement and rescuing it from becoming a parody of itself. I don't think I'd call either of these songs improved by these treatments, though.
Whipping Boy: When We Were Young
This one-part single adds a b-side, a cover and another alternate version. "As the Day Goes", the b-side, is gruff, but I think it really wants to be a Radiohead song. The cover, of Lou Reed's "Caroline Says II", is authentically limp and toneless, but I don't like Lou Reed doing Lou Reed songs, and this is no better. The alternate version of "When We Were Young", though, which substitutes a formless and entirely different Phil Lynott-derived rant for the song's original lyrics, is a bizarre and striking experiment.
Whipping Boy: Twinkle #1
The singles finally begin paying off in earnest with the pair for "Twinkle", which add three furious live recordings of album tracks each. Part one (red) has a seething, pounding "Fiction", which in places sounds like the Three Johns covering New Order, razor-sharp guitar buzz on "Tripped", and some nice mandolin, vibes and keyboards on an elegantly diffident "The Honeymoon Is Over".
Whipping Boy: Twinkle #2
The concert triad on part two (blue) erupts with a frenetic, clattering performance of "Blinded", eases up for a stunningly confident and compassionate version of "Personality", and then leans into a haunting, punishing, adrift "Users". All six of these recordings add a roughness that the album, which veiled its menace in self-containment, lacked, and while I don't consider that a flaw of the album, hearing these songs this way, too, is a revelation.
Dirty Three / Low: Obvious Is Obvious / No Need
And finally, it's hard to tell from the packaging which of these two songs comes first on the disc, but it takes only a few seconds of "Obvious Is Obvious" to tell that it's not a Low song. For any other band it's a dangerously slow and quiet song, but for Low the stately violins are garish, the lugubrious pace is hyperkinetic, and the muted guitar chords are inexcusably brash. The contrast, when "No Need" actually starts (if you can call it that), with its unvarying war-drum-funeral-march percussion, strangled vocal and but the faintest ghost of a guitar part, is profound. I'm not even sure if it makes sense to call what Low does "making" music. It's less like something they do, and more like what's left when they block everything else out. If silence can have weight, then Low's music is like aural judo, and "No Need" is their demonstration that no amount of soundlessness is a match for proper leverage.
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