We Will Not Enter Into the Metaphysics of the Toucan
232 · 8 July 99
After spending an either understandably or inordinately long time at it, depending on whether sitting on a couch watching a lot of hours of one-sided soccer instead of lying in a bed reading seems like a sensible short-term tradeoff to you or not, I finally finished David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, and forged directly into the somewhat breezier The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner's companionable survey of experimental evolutionary biology. If I were required to have one life-course regret (rather than none or several), it might be that I did not (or have not, at least, but it might be too late) become a scientist. It's not entirely clear, to be honest, why I didn't. My father and his father were both physicists, and on my college applications I claimed, in what felt like earnest at the time, that I intended to major in Physics myself. In the car, on the way up the Mass Pike to Cambridge for my Freshman year, flipping through the Harvard course catalog, I suddenly realized that I didn't want to take any of the Physics courses, while almost every Philosophy course in the book sounded earth-shattering. Latter I found flaws in the second half of this apparent revelation, and opted to concentrate in art (which Harvard, stodgily, refers to as Visual and Environmental Studies), probably the farthest available remove from Physics. I believe my rationale at the time was that if I did Physics I'd have no social life, while VES would let me play with cool toys. I may even have been dense enough to admit this to my parents, who did not immediately see how four years of taking pictures, making documentaries about grubby local rock bands, and pondering the social significance of gas-station architecture would justify their spending the daunting amount of money that Harvard's delirious financial-aid department was convinced they had to spare. They showed heroic restraint, however, by not actually preventing me. In retrospect, it almost always seems like a good decision to me. I'm particularly proud of my younger self for recognizing that cameras are cooler than computers. Still, stories like Peter and Rosemary Grant's, which most of The Beak of the Finch is given over to telling, remind me why I once, simplistically, assumed that experimental science was by far the highest-order human activity, and thus the only fit pastime for smart people. The Grants spend half their time as biologists at Princeton, and the other half marooned in the Galápagos, measuring finches. Measuring birds may sound like an even more patrician hobby than merely watching them, but they do it for an extremely good reason, which is that after more than a hundred years of treating evolution as purely a matter of theory, it finally occurred to somebody that if you were clever, you might be able to find some of it literally taking place. The great virtues of the Grants' two study islands, Daphne Major and Genovesa, are that they are very small, they are very isolated, they have very simple ecosystems (in relative terms), and they are populated by distinctly speciated birds that reproduce quickly enough for generations to go by within the span of human observation. So the Grants, and their revolving cast of assorted graduate students, have been tagging, tracking and measuring every finch on their islands for the last twenty years, building up a database from which it finally becomes possible to extract factual and statistical observations about the effects of natural selection. You don't get a complete lineage from amoebae to Tisha Venturini out of calipered finch beaks, of course, but you go a long way towards demonstrating that the principle we think was responsible for the transformation is, in fact, both capable of, and inclined towards, transforming. If the value of this labor isn't self-evident to you, I'm not going to try to explain it, nor, probably, am I going to be civil to you at parties.
As much as a part of me yearns to contribute to some investigation on the scale of the Grant's, though, I recognize that I could not live their lives. Desert islands, in my value system, are strictly rhetorical geography. If you can find one with a good hotel, an international airport, natives that speak English with adorable accents, compelling ethnic cuisine and at least six major independent record stores, I might be convinced to visit for a week, but at that point the desert island in question is probably Britain. Anything short of that is either a day-trip taken under coercion, or somewhere I'm content to read about in a book. I do not camp, I do not like bugs, and I do not care how incandescent the sunsets are. I'm extremely glad somebody is measuring finches, and I'm very relieved that it isn't me.
If the world is balanced properly, the Grants are equally nauseated by the idea of sitting in front of a stereo, listening to records. This, at least for the moment, is my research project. It's hard to see, maybe, what human doubt I'm helping to resolve by scrutinizing any one of these records, but you don't assess the value of each finch, one at a time, either. Come back in fifteen years and I'll tell you something amazing. What do we say to each other when we hurt? How do we describe ourselves to ourselves? How do we situate ourselves within our cultural contexts? How does it affect our thoughts and our instincts to conflate the two? What does a restless species do with time once it doesn't need it all for sheer survival? Maybe those aren't the questions, either, but there are answers to something hiding in these records, and in the spaces between them, I'm sure of it. Some weeks I have suspicions, like some years the Grants measure finches thinking they know what they'll find. Most of the time, though, you just try to write neatly, not overlook anything important out of laziness, and hope the patterns don't involve more points than you can plot before you die.
The April Crash: Let Me Down
The Grants end up hundreds of miles off the coast of Ecuador not because the birds outside their office windows back in New Jersey are too well understood, but because making biological sense of suburban sparrows is much too difficult. Their finches are important not because they're peculiar, but precisely because they're so emblematic; measuring finches is the most efficient way to learn about sparrows, and dodos, and wolverines, and why the disconnected tops of Canadians' heads bounce around several inches above their jaws when they talk. I'm not sure that studying a pile of obscure seven-inch singles is going to elucidate Ricky Martin and B*Witched in quite the same way, but I've had far dumber theories, and even if all it does is reclaim a little bit of my floor space, that's still something to show for the night.
Proceeding in alphabetical order, which is a meaningless discipline but so is trying to travel straight while you're lost, this survey of random fragments begins with this 1997 single by the Urbana, Illinois band The April Crash. There is no longer a web site where the sleeve claims there used to be, and Mud Records doesn't even list this disk in their catalog, so I don't have many facts to report. Elizabeth Zinger's confident voice rises above the rest of the standard-rock-format quartet as if both of them know that different destinies await them. "Let Me Down" and "High School Drama" seem to me a less jazzy American Heavenly, or like how China Forbes' next record might have sounded if she'd recruited a backing band somewhere between Big Dipper and Green Day, instead of joining a swing ensemble. "Doozer (acoustic version)" (presumably there is a "non-acoustic" version elsewhere on the planet, or else maybe they're just taunting me), on the other hand, with Zinger's flute wafting above oscillating acoustic guitars, sounds more like a pencil sketch for a Lush single. 45rpm, black vinyl.
Bitesize: More Songs About Cars and Body Parts
Bitesize are a trio from Berkeley. They play like a goofier version of the Muffs who learned tempo from the Ramones, but guitar chords from Voivod. "Headache Baby Yeah!" is a bouncy, petulant diatribe against somebody who consumed all the singer's aspirin, in the mold of the American Measles' "God Took My Bike". "Jumpstart" careens, "The Bee's Knees" borrows the hook from the Archers of Loaf's "Web in Front", and the pounding and strident "In the Know" conceals a lonely domestic tableau worth of Tullycraft. I noticed only two body parts, and no specific cars, although there is a garage. 45rpm, lovely translucent red vinyl courtesy of Packing Heat Music!, whatever that is.
Bobsy: The End of April
Evidently it's uncool to clutter indie sleeves with information, but my guess is that Bobsy is just a guy named Bob. "The End of April" is one acoustic guitar and two vocal tracks, and sounds rather startlingly like Simon & Garfunkel if they'd been younger, but already writing their own songs, when they made Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. "Letting Go", the b-side, adds a meandering toy piano, and replaces Simon with Lou Barlow. This single is a co-production of Drive-In and Moonscreen Records, which I suspect means that far more industry was required to coordinate this release than was employed in recording it, but at this level that may frequently be true. 45, black.
Boy Crazy: Last Thursday
"Last Thursday" sounds like Neil Young singing over a seventh-generation cassette of the Housemartins' "Happy Hour". No, that's not quite right: "Happy Hour" is clear, it's the vocals that sigh out of focus on the chorus, as if the vinyl wasn't treated correctly, and the grooves are collapsing under the tension of harmony. "Pro Fun Ditty", with alternating male/female vocals on the verses, sugary keyboards, artless handclaps, and oddly strained backing vocals, isn't sure whether it idolizes Heavenly, Kissing Book or X. "White Gloves" is a reminder that at least some of the kids in pop bands today must have grown up listening to their parents' Jefferson Airplane records. Magic Marker Records, 33 1/3rpm (perhaps unadvisedly, given the sound quality), black vinyl.
Buddha on the Moon: On Holiday
I've tracked down a couple CDs by the Houston studio duo Buddha on the Moon, too, but my favorite of their songs remains the slow, whirring "Losing", the a-side of this single on Drive-In's sister label, Quiddity. Washes of guitar and warm synthesizer drones glide over a steady drum-machine strut, like St. Christopher trying to be My Bloody Valentine. The flip side, the wordless "Euclid Ave. Yacht Club", is springier, its sequenced piano, ping-pong-ball synth-vibes and lurching guitar sounding to me like half-speed early Game Theory. 45, black.
Busytoby: Me, My Drums and You
Busytoby, as of this first single, were Joe Ziemba and Amanda Lyons from Wolfie, and Rachel Switzky from Sarge (although since then Rachel got a profession and left both bands, replaced in Busytoby by Jenny Magnum, whose boyfriend, RJ Porter, is Wolfie's drummer). The nominal difference between Busytoby and Wolfie is that Amanda sings more leads in Busytoby, which means that when she doesn't, as on the third song, the beepy and ominous "Number One", I have a very hard time telling the difference. Parasol Records, 45, black.
Cannanes/Small World Experience: Australian Pop Series Vol. 1
The Cannanes played here last week. They have the approximate stage presence of your parents, which is a large part of their charm, in my opinion. Of the table full of singles over which Pehr Records operator Adam Hervey (whose band, Timonium, played one of the opening sets) was watching, the only one I didn't already have was this split, on the Denver Australiophile label Spit and a Half. The two Cannanes songs, "Anthem" and "Matter of Distinction", are 1994 demos recorded in one evening by Frances Gibson and Stephen O'Neil, sufficiently informally that guitar tuning was deemed inessential, which is a particularly apt treatment for the diffident fight-song "Anthem", surely one of the most intentionally unconvincing bits of self-aggrandizement in a form more often known for failed attempts. "Procrastination", Small World Experience's side, is busier, but not much higher fi, mostly unsteady bass growl and snarly cluster-chord guitar, like a blues record on a Victrola cranked by a narcoleptic organ-grinder's monkey. 45rpm, white vinyl.
Eggplant: Sweet Anarchy
There's an CD compilation of the handful of singles the London trio Eggplant put out, which I haven't tracked down yet (with the succinct, if unappealing, title Anorak Twat), but I will, as two of the four songs on this Bus Stop single, "All I Can Do" and "Still We Fall (Into the Same Trap)", are among the best Primitives songs I've ever heard, fizzy and soaring and heartbreaking, and "Often I Lie" is a reasonably good approximation of the midpoint between the Primitives and Heavenly. 45, black.
Eggplant: Girl Wants a Dinosaur
I'm prepared to find out Sweet Anarchy was as good as Eggplant got, though, as by this later Bus Stop single they've regressed toward a speed-punk mean, bass mostly drowning out the guitar, and I wait in vain for the songs to take flight. I don't usually resent low-fi production, but I can't help wondering if that's all that's wrong with these. 45, black.
Empress: Homeward Sounds
The Leeds label 555 Recordings makes real records, thick, heavy things, vinyl cut like steaks, records to put in time capsules or wedge under the corners of wobbly row-houses. Perhaps paradoxically, the music on them tends to be either witheringly noisy or harrowingly evanescent, sometimes both. This single's six-piece suite isn't much different than any comparable stretch of the Empress CD, alternating between whispered Low-esque dirges and fragments of grinding machine noise, but the minimalism seems even more striking to me at this shorter length, as if the duration of the CD partly mitigated its strangeness, scale compensating for pace, like a sufficiently large abstract painting will provoke some of the same visceral responses as a sweeping landscape. Now I want the next Empress record to be made of solid lead, and last less than a minute. 45, extremely black.
Everyone Asked About You: Sometimes Memory Fails Me Sometimes
I bought this in a fit of enthusiasm for anything whose name bore a structural resemblance to Even As We Speak. The packaging, by Arkansas label Drawing Room, is lovely, with translucent paper for the outer sleeve and a thick, textural weave for the inner liner; I enjoy simply taking it apart and putting it back together again. I like it better if I don't play it, sadly, as the songs sound like slower, sparer Jawbox or Braid with co-ed singers, a combination for which I can't muster as much passion as I want to. 45, old-style large spindle-hole, black.
From Bubblegum to Sky: My Thousand Years With Robots
Mario Hernandez was in Ciao Bella, who made one album (1) before exhausting the name, I guess, and being forced to regroup as From Bubblegum to Sky. "My Thousand Years With Robots" makes me imagine Kleenex Girl Wonder covering Blondie's "The Dreaming" under the misapprehension that it's an XTC song; "Hello Hello Hi" is snappier, like a cross between the Posies and the Cars. 45, black. Off-puttingly cute cartoon character on front.
Halkyn: Behind the Snow
Halkyn isn't, as far as I can discern, another Boyracer spin-off, but this single is on Stewart Anderson's 555, and it's not hard to imagine that it's another one of his friends taking a turn at singing these songs. The instrumentation is nearly as phlegmatic as Empress', but more acoustic than soundscaped, and eerily hesitant, like the Willard Grant Conspiracy in the middle of a nervous collapse, or the dying echoes of what bluegrass sounded like during the last ice age. 45, black, nearly unbendable.
Hem: Be Completely Full Of...
Hem are a Boyracer spin-off, essentially a proto-Empress with Nicola Hodgkinson at the helm. "Be Completely Full Of..." could be Low with a viola, the serrated "Serge" sounds a bit like a skeletal cross between the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and New Order, and "Dissevelt" might be notes towards the incidental music for a Dr. Who episode written by Samuel Beckett. 33, black. Although apparently there were some red ones.
Her Tears: Ultra-Crush
We lurch back into pop for this charging 1994 popfactory single by the Danbury, Connecticut trio Her Tears. "Ultra-Crush" reminds me of Hum, "Moxie" of Hüsker Dü, "Every Day the Day Before" unexpectedly of Bowie, although I don't remember him having a chatty noise-pop phase. 45, black.
Huon have an album on 555, which I haven't heard yet, but this single is on the Australian label Library Records, and Huon are a recombination of various Australian groups, chiefly Mia Schoen from Sleepy Township and David Nichols from Blairmailer and before that the Cannanes. The airy, Mia-sung "Fluoro" sounds pleasantly like Sleepy Township to me, but she adopts a more clipped, Edie Brickell-ish delivery for "Bad Friend", and when David takes over on vocals for "Fortune", you could tell me it's just an old Cannanes oddity and I wouldn't flinch. 45, black.
Hydroplane: When I Was Howard Hughes
It used to be clear that Hydroplane was the dreamy, semi-ambient alter-ego of the Cat's Miaow, but the Cat's Miaow's The Long Goodbye/Bliss Out EP, which consists of gauzy and ethereal reworkings of a handful of their pop songs, messed up that sharp distinction. The complement would be Hydroplane doing jangly pop, but for this single of covers (the Shapiros' "When I Was Howard Hughes" and the Creation's "If You Spoke to Me, I Wouldn't Know What to Say") they stick to the old formula, bathing Cat's Miaow singer Kerrie Bolton's breathy vocals in sourceless reverberation and murmurs of unidentified noise. Excellent music to sleep to, provided that you don't mind getting up to flip the record every four minutes. 45, black.
Ida: Poor Dumb Bird
The number of bands I've discovered in the last six months that could be among my new favorites, if their entire catalog weren't sitting in the huge pile of things I haven't adequately absorbed, is truly absurd, but high on even that crowded list is the breathtakingly gorgeous Ida. I'm not sure I've listened to any of their own songs more than three times yet, but this single has covers of two songs I'm already familiar with, first a fragile and arrestingly vitriol-free setting of Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", and then a bizarre falsetto rendition of Prince's "When U Were Mine" (also covered by Cyndi Lauper, although this version is rederived from the original) whose vocals sound like Roland Gift on helium, except for two beats of the chorus, when Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell insert a wiltingly beautiful "I know". A-side 33, b-side 45, black.
Ida/Beekeeper: Maybelle/Wait Til Then
Ida bassist Karla Schickele is also in Beekeeper with her brother Matthew, thus this split single. Ida's half, "Maybelle", is quiet, chiming, soothing folk-pop, with languid three-part harmonies from Karla, Daniel and Elizabeth. Beekeeper's half, "Wait Til Then", is comparatively jagged and dissonant. The autographed photo from David Duchovny reproduced on the credits sheet is a strange touch, but at least it's not Millard Fillmore. 33, black.
Kleenex Girl Wonder: Long Live the Pelican Express
Kleenex Girl Wonder never remind me of Guided by Voices more vividly than on their singles. This undated (but older, I think) one has five crashing, twitching, badly distorted mock-epics, any one of which could be Pollard's ("Bones and the Smiling Mackerel" and "Handsome Pet Giant" even get his titling style right, and I can't think of anybody other than these two who would sing "nomenclature" with seven syllables), although Graham Smith is slightly more apt to write short, but complete, songs, instead of abandoning fragments. Arguably the inclusion of an Italian nursery rhyme as the sixth song is a perverse touch beyond even GbV. The Kleenex Girl Wonder albums are mostly much more cleanly produced than this, which to me is an argument in favor of both. MOC, 33, black.
Kleenex Girl Wonder: Gay Gigolo
"Louis, My Corpse Looks a Little Familiar", "The Art of Heroin", "Sleeping in the Apartment", "Mouse Hunt, Mouse Blood", "Get Out of Town". There's less of Graham's trademark crash-cymbal roar here than usual, although the splatter drumming on "The Art of Heroin" is one of my very favorite KGW touches, and the Byrds-y refrains and bass rumble on "Mouse Hunt, Mouse Blood" betray more poise than Graham usually admits to. 100 Guitar Mania, 33, black. My turntable refuses to play the last few revolutions of "Sleeping in the Apartment", so let me know if yours does and there's anything amazing there.
Landis: The Water's Electric
The concise, pensive, droning, flanged-vocal "The Water's Electric" on one side. Nothing on the other. I don't disapprove intellectually, and I like the one song, but the blank b-side still seems a bit cheap. How long could it take to write another one? I would have been happy to wait. Drive-In, 45, white.
It seems like the isolation effect that made the Empress single even more striking than the album should work with Low, too, but it doesn't, at least not for me. "Venus" is a little too quick, and although "Boyfriends & Girlfriends" is glacial, Zak plucks his bass too decisively, and it sort of ruins the mood. Sub Pop, 45 on the front, 33 on the back, although it wasn't until the vocals started that I realized I was listening to the b-side on the wrong speed. Large spindle-hole, to increase the chance you won't expect the speed-change. Black, including an embossed black-on-black sleeve only readable in lamp glare.
Mathlete: The Household Frequencies
Everybody in Wolfie must have a side-project, apparently. Mathlete is Mike Downey's duo with Dan Marsden, and their first vinyl release is this robotic six-song EP on Houston's Ojet Records, parts Gary Numan, Devo, They Might Be Giants and the Dead Milkmen (even the titles are hybrids: "Bring Me Down (I'm a Fader)", "Asteroid Police", "Plexiglass Girls", "213 Arcade Lane", "Technology, Technology", "Record and Play"). Mathlete songs are almost entirely based on drum-machines and synthesizers, and more synth-rock than indie-pop, so it's easier to tell Mathlete and Wolfie apart than it is Wolfie and Busytoby, but Mike sings four of the six, and either you like his nasal, childlike vocal style or you don't. 33, black.
The Minders: Paper Plane
The Elephant 6 collective seems to pretty much shed singles, and I've mostly edged around them keeping my hands to myself, but after liking the Minders' Hooray for Tuesday I broke down and bought all their singles I could find. "Paper Plane" and "Big Machine", from this 1996 release, are both a lot less Beatlesque than the later album, closer to Guided by Voices in Pollard's rock mode. "Sally" is janglier, but sounds as much like the Animals as it does anything of Lennon and McCartney's. Elephant 6 mainstay Robert Schneider mixed these songs, but didn't record or produce them, and I think they lack the kaleidoscope sparkle he usually imparts. 45, black, and lock-grooves on both sides, so don't try to outlast the codas.
The Minders: Rocket 58
"Rocket 58", from 1997, edges closer to pop, but still hasn't completely lost its rock shamble. The unhuried "Weigh the Anchor!" reminds me of Grand Funk Railroad, but "Better Things", though bass heavy, harbors unmistakable pure-pop aspirations. 100 Guitar Mania, 45, black, no lock-grooves.
The Minders: Black Balloon
The 1998 Little Army single Black Balloon finally arrives where I'm waiting, fractured retro-Brit-pop laced with low-fi buzz. "Black Balloon"'s jittery rhythms have some weird bluegrass roots, but "Hand-Me-Downs" is like a detuned metal-chorus "Day Tripper", and "Now I Can Smile" is noisy, but irrepressible, early-Beatles-ish pop. 45, black, large spindle-hole and another very nice half-translucent package.
One of the reasons I love ordering things from Twee Kitten is that they come with these charming clip-art mini-comic-books, which are a bit like Dadaist Tintin stories. The one that I got with this Pedestal EP examines a spurned suitor's struggle with his aversion to dancing. Pedestal are something like a less-florid Magnetic Fields, Erik Mueller providing keyboard accompaniment to Rachel Mueller-Lust's uninflected, Susan Anway-ish singing. "On the Subway" is bright and expansive, "Each Night Alone" bursts into loud percussion at odd intervals like furniture being knocked over, and "Endlessly" is sunny and old-fashioned. 33, black.
Prickly: Fashion Sense of Famous Monsters of Filmland
The two Boston bands whose singles I've been scraping together that I'm saddest to be only discovering in retrospect are Twig and Prickly. I think I've got everything Prickly did now, three singles, one CD EP and a few stray compilation tracks. This 1995 disk is actually the earliest single, as best I can tell self-released. The prize, in my opinion, is the title track, a hauntingly compassionate Frankenstein slow-dance (to go with Too Much Joy's rousing "Pride of Frankenstein", perhaps), intertwining traces of the Velvet Underground, Buffalo Tom and Salem 66. "Phonebill" and "Spotty Dog" are faster, but less dramatic, the contrast between the band's swirling drive and Collin Oberndorf's weightless voice less unnerving. 45, black. Strange cartoon art.
"Stall" is just the lead track from Sarge's second album, The Glass Intact, but the b-side of the single is another priceless cover, a jumpy, pulsing, furious, knowing gallop through Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time". I don't often get to hear one artist I adore play a song by another one, and when it happens with two this dissimilar, it's doubly precious. If we chain this to Everclear's version of the Go-Go's' "Our Lips Are Sealed" and Anacrusis' thrashing of New Model Army's "I Love the World", we can probably hold together half the world. 45, black.
The Shining Hour: Five O'Clock Rise
I get the impression that Mark Cohen has hundreds of grand, sweet pop songs in his head, if not his basement, so the four on this Apricot single may not add much to the fifteen on Wait All Summer, but if the hand-writing is to be believed, my copy of this 800-count limited edition is number 666. The Satanic hidden message so far eludes me. 33, in a bewitching mango.
Sissy Bar: Smiley (We Become)
The front of this Paris Caramel single is covered with what looks to me like a Chinese TV-schedule, and I've found in the past that Asian themes on indie-pop record covers tend to correlate highly with the sort of coy, Pizzicato-Five-style novelty-pop inclinations I reliably detest, but while "Student Body Treasurer" has its share of bloopy noises and borderline-out-of-tune banjo, "Smiley (We Become)" is a propulsive, uncluttered pop treat, like a less oblique Breeders. 33, clear.
Sissy Fuzz: Don't Fear (The Reverb)
"Summer Saliva" and "Waffle Poultice" are dreadful titles, but "Don't Fear (The Reverb)" has the ring of inspired inevitability, to me, and Robert Schneider imparts a frizzy Elephant 6 spin (à la Apples in Stereo, perhaps most closely) to this 1997 One Hundred Guitar Mania single by Sissy Fuzz, which also features KGW-worthy crash cymbals, but disappointingly, no actual musical connection to the Blue Öyster Cult song.
Sleepy Township: On-Line
These three Sleepy Township songs predate Set Sail, their album, but I'll take them in whatever order I can get them. The a-side has two fast ones, Mia's fluttering "On-Line" and the marvelously ragged duet "Cabaret"; on the back is Guy's muted, melancholy, distracted "Cabaret". 45, black, premium gauge (thanks to Guy's day job at Australia's last record-pressing plant).
Solarium: All the Time
If you can imagine a catchy, mid-tempo Low, with buzzsaw-guitar choruses, whistled mock-arena solos and mournful harmonicas, you probably don't need this 1998 Drive-In single from San Francisco quartet Solarium. 45, black, understated.
The Spells: The Age of Backwards
If you think that the musical common ground between Helium's Mary Timony and Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein is the least appealing part of either of their styles, then you won't need three-fourths of this four-song collaboration on K, either, anti-pop collages of weird-interval shards and rhythmic anxiety. The fourth track, though, is a remarkable razor-pop remake of, of all things, the Who's "Can't Explain". If it's meant ironically, I'm missing the cues, but if they intend reverence, I'm mystified that they don't write more pop songs themselves. 45, black, but also available on CD.
Star Ghost Dog: Automatic Caution Door
The first time I saw Star Ghost Dog, opening a bill I really should have arrived later for, they were a trio, and they seemed so utterly devoid of life to me that I couldn't understand what motivated them to keep playing. It must have been a bad night, because the next time I saw them, again unintentionally, they were a tight pop quartet, clearly enjoying themselves, and maybe not overburdened with charisma, but endearingly uncomplicated. The two new songs on this 1998 single both remind me of the last Spinanes album, which I count as a good thing. "Plus de Vaches", remixed from Happylove, last year's album, is now dialog-laced semi-industrial disco, which I neither understand nor appreciate, but maybe someone requested it. 33, black.
Stinky Fire Engine: Disco City Holiday
Stinky Fire Engine is a dismal band name, but "Disco City Holiday" sounds enough like early Sisters of Mercy for me not to care. The drum loop that propels it is deliberately (I assume) mis-edited so that it misses the beat just slightly every time it comes around, which gives the song a strange, halting gait the humming keyboards and glum vocals don't bother trying to disguise. "Bulldozer Capri", the b-side, is more like karaoke Falco. Library Records release 1, 45, black.
Sweet William: Dutch Mother
Sweet William is defunct, but the posthumous album, World of Books, did not compile the singles. This first one, the debut release from Matinée Records, has an a-side that would fit right in on The The's Soul Mining, and b-sides that remind me of Tirez Tirez and the Smiths ("A Map of the World") and the Feelies and Everything but the Girl ("I Left Mine Behind"). Black, but A45/B33, so pay attention or get smurfed.
Sweet William: Lovely Norman
The title track of the second one (Matinée 6) sounds more like Sarah Records (including a guitar figure straight out of the Sugargliders' "Ahprahran"), but the jazzy "Not Actual, Not Lasting" is nervous and mordant, and "Run for Your Life" sounds like a sing-along folk-standard in a Violent Femmes trance. 45/33 again, black.
Sweet William: Fedora
"Fedora", the front of the third (Library 3), does nothing for me, but "He's Leaving Tomorrow", the b-side, is becalmed and bitter, a bleary duet strung out on a bare acoustic-guitar frame. 45 both sides, black.
Trinitone: Trying to Think
The a-side to this, yet another Drive-In single, is pretty ordinary, but the b-side, "Obvious", is quick, shiny post-Jellyfish power-pop, with frantic, burbling bass, twitching drums and scratchy guitar. 45, black (but tasteful).
Twin Princess: Althea
Every time I pick this up I forget and want it to sound like Stretch Princess. It's actually closer to Rasputina, muddy guitar gnashings under wraithlike falsetto whimpers on the menacing a-side, a kind of distended, early-Liz Phair-ish pop on "Sorry", the reverse. Apparently the instruments are by the Posies' Ken Stringfellow, although you wouldn't guess from listening. Hidden Agenda, 45, quite red.
The Windmills: Three Sixty Degrees
No such experiment clutters Matinée 11, a pair of spiraling pop songs from the Essex quartet The Windmills. "Three Sixty Degrees" sounds like a cross between Winter Hours and the Church, to me, infectious and unpretentious. "Bad Luck Charm" mixes in some Translator, and is only undermined by a subtle but pervasive pitch waver, like my turntable is circling around the proper speed, which the strobe on the front insists isn't the case. 45, black.
various: The Sidewalk Chalk Adventure
And we burrow out the back of the pile, nearly back where we began, with one more Busytoby song, this one from a Kittridge Records seven-inch compilation. If you play it on 45 it sounds like Berlin. On 33 it sounds oddly mature, not what I want from Busytoby at all. Luckily there's a song from Six Cents & Natalie, Sean Tollefson's pre-Crayon/pre-Tullycraft band, on the other side, which not only has the kid-vocals the Busytoby song is missing, but also some Saturday-morning-TV finger-snaps and a little wide-eyed theremin warble, and is not included on the new Six Cents & Natalie retrospective, Show Me the Honey. Small triumphs, long nights. Forty-five finches measured, a planet to go.