Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Escape from Amoeba: A day at Mystery Train, Amherst, MA (10/14)

On vacation, I really do enjoy hitting the local used record shops, even if they suck. Northampton, MA for instance: both Turn It Up! and Dynamite are just kind of lacking, for whatever reason, but I've visited them multiple times. What separates the good from the bad? Part of it is the music they play (there's nothing like overcompressed "emo" guitar that stunts my desire to browse), part of it is selection (indiscriminating buyers, plain old bad taste, etc), but I also suspect that it might be a case of "got it or don't got it." Which would prevent me from trying to set one up for the time being - you know, besides the fact that "nobody buys CDs anymore" and Amazon is allegedly killing small businesses one at a time.

Last time I came out to Massachusetts I visited both the aforementioned Northampton retailers and bought nothing. On my last day there, I was in an Amherst Ben & Jerry's across the street from a much more appealing hole-in-the-wall used record place, Mystery Train. Closed, naturally - fuck. I vowed on my next visit I would comb the place, as in my judging-a-book-from-its-cover glance, the location seemed more than promising.

This afternoon, it did not disappoint. Music? Check - they were playing Os Mutantes when I walked in, later switching to something sounding vaguely Middle Eastern. And the selection was there. A modest heap of used CDs are scattered throughout the store's corners, making it easy for me to go for a general look-see for anything appealing, rather than limiting a search to a few artists, as I tend to do at Amoeba. I came up with seven titles of interest, but due to my recent irresponsible spendthriftery (a post on a particularly lavish week will appear soon when I can come to terms with it), I swore to limit myself, and luckily a CD player where you could actually test out the goddam things (sadly, a rarity nowadays) was handy to help me in doing so. Hence, I decided against Too High to Die by the Meat Puppets (90s nostalgia isn't talking to me these days), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (holding out for a vinyl copy even though I love the album), O'Rourke's Tamper (not sure if I love his ambient stuff and he's repeatedly stated dissatisfaction with that particular record) and Andrew W.K.'s The Wolf (I'm a seasonal record buyer. I just don't feel like kicking ass, puking and partying this time of year).

What's more, I was looking for a really good album I hadn't heard before, or at least something that would expand my horizons a little bit. It's hard to buy all five-star albums, or to constantly select something that's been woefully underrated for years or whatever, and it seems to get harder with the larger volume of albums you buy. Or perhaps I just haven't been giving my recent purchases the attention they deserve. Or perhaps I'm just entering "the middle" as Steve Albini so irritatingly put it in his well-written but typically kind of infuriating introduction to the wonderful new Tape Op book I got in the mail. Is nothing exciting anymore and I'm getting old? Maybe it's best to relax and just listen to some fuckin' jams, man...

Neil Young - Neil Young

When I took this one to the counter, the guy checking me out said, "Have you heard this one before? This is probably my favorite."

"Really?" I said, reassured of my purchase.

"Yeah, this or Trans {the Kraftwerk-aping 1983 flop that was one of the reasons Young got sued by his own record company - Ed.}." Oops.

I think that every one of these first self-titled solo albums follow a certain pattern. How many can I think of right now...Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Stephen Malkmus, this one...The stories are usually similar, too: most talented (and often most cantankerous) songwriter leaves group, makes tentative-sounding eponymous record, goes onto the rest of their career. Writing this, I wish there was a Roky Erickson that could have been cut in 1975, but until that time machine gets going, that will have to remain a wish. Instrumentation has to include one thing slightly envelope-pushing, but not too much. Tasteful, subdued drumming. Ensemble - preferably female - backup vocals, always. And songwriting that demonstrates both versatility and crossover appeal.

Even though Neil Young has all these things, it's still just kind of a weird record. Why include two instrumentals, one of which you didn't even write, on such an album? The album even starts with one of them, and elsewhere, vocals are a bit buried under a backing that's not quite psychedelic but also not quite the country-rocking hybrid Young would concoct just a year later that would more or less dominate the rest of his career. Really, Neil Young sounds of its time and not of its time, and like one of those "first solo albums" and not at the same time. Hell, it doesn't really sound like the Buffalo Springfield (aside from maybe "The Old Laughing Lady") but it also doesn't sound like NY & Crazy Horse. And thank God Almighty, it doesn't sound like CSNY, because I fucking hate them.

This is a tricky little record and in terms of a "seasonal buy," I really scored points with my fickle nervous system. Moody, double-tracked quavering vocals wander through some of the best lyrics Young would ever write in a mix that includes direct-injected distorted guitar lines, some kind of synthesizer (dunno which) and some pretty funky bass lines (which of course you wouldn't hear on later Young albums when handled by Billy "one-note" Talbot). Young would later decry this album as "more overdubbed than played," which, unbeknownst to him, was the future of music. But it's interesting to hear him thrust into such a scenario outside of what was to become his comfort zone, the late-night-jam-session record making method. He succeeds, however reluctantly. The results sound akin to proto-MBV at times, and I'm not just saying that because the band played "I've Been Waiting For You" over the PA before I saw them at the Santa Monica Civic this month. (SKULLFUCKINGLY LOUD)

Highlights include "Waiting for You," which I've heard covered by Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies (best one) and David Bowie. "I've Loved Her So Long" is probably the best-written song on the album, augmented by a surprisingly tasteful (read: not overdone) Jack Nietzche string arrangement that pushes the "blue-eyed soul" envelope effectively. Closer "Last Trip to Tulsa" provides a not-boring 9 minute acoustic run at Neil's own version of Bob D's "111th dream" (or whatever number it is, you know the song, and I think there was another one just like it on another Dylan album, too). And "The Loner" just sounds cool. Looking forward to more listens in the coming days. Now, I'm even considering giving Trans a try.

No Age: A Compilation of SST Instrumental Music

With A Compilation, formerly mediocre LA rock band No Age display more originality and vitality than could have been expected from a band with their amount of imagination and talent. Here, fronting as such fictional bands as "Black Flag," "Lee Renaldo," "Steve Fisk" and other, even zanier monikers like "Gone," "Frith & Kaiser" and "Elliot Sharp," the band defies critics who have labeled them "boring," "unoriginal," "careerist" and "like Husker Du stripped of anything exciting or entertaining" with riveting punk rock inspired instrumentals...

Forgive the Mark Prindle-ism. I'll admit this thing caught my eye because it shares a name with the current toast-of-the-town rockers who are the reason the same groups are at the Smell every week and just released a truly po-dunk record that bafflingly got great reviews everywhere. Then the subtitle grabbed me: "SST Instrumental Music?" I love SST just as much as the No Agers, who, in typical arrogance, claimed to be starting the same type of community for this generation at the increasingly unexciting Smell. But how much instrumental music had I really heard come out of the label? Uh, the instrumentals on Double Nickels on the Dime, maybe one or two that I could stand off Family Man, the handful of one-minute excursions on Meat Puppets II...you get the idea. I glanced at the back and saw a wide range of artists, including some pretty funny-sounding unknowns like "Blind Idiot God" and "Paper Bag." I rememered how, as a 6-year old music obsessive, instrumentals were often my favorites on any given album (e.g. Magical Mystery Tour's "Flying"). My inner Michael Harkin said "Go for it, B." It made the cut.

Some of the compilation is dominated by dated drum machines that have gated reverb and big-sounding toms, and other songs feature drumkits that might as well be those drum machines, but shit, we're talking about the mid-80s here - so we can forgive era-related gaffes in favor of good music. Surprisingly, Lawndale (never heard of them before) sound more Greg Ginn than the Greg Ginn bands on here. But both the Black Flag and Gone tracks are standouts, as well, mainly because Ginn was a hell of a guitar player, and a fucking weird one too. (He might still be, for all I know, but I don't even download the free stuff from current-day SST.) Great tracks include Lee Renaldo's all too short noise segue "Florida Power" and Beat Happening/Mudhoney producer Steve Fisk's room-sound experiment "Johnny Smoke 'Swamp Thing,'" probably notable for being the only two tracks on the record that don't use digital reverb. Lawndale's kind of disturbing "March of the Melted Army" also scored big, and the rest will require further listening - which an album of this scope really deserves. It's amazing to consider what a cross-section of truly talented people SST once had, and this bizarre gem is a testament to it, and a good find.

I don't know if No Age named themselves after this record and I don't give a shit.

Songs you should be listening to instead of that shit you're actually listening to:
"Never Gonna Leave You" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"No No No, I Won't Come (Go) Down No More," "Pool Hall Clickety Clack" - Michael Hurley
"Kangaroo," "Jesus Christ" - Big Star
"Toppin" - Sex-S
"The Rain" - Missy Elliott

Bonus Massachusetts Celebrity Sighting:
J MASCIS at a Thai restaurant in Northampton!!

1 comment:

Michael said...

Wow, that SST Instrumentals disc is a fuckin' FIND! You should check out "The Process of Weeding Out" when you get a chance--lotsa wacky Ginn guitar-playing on that one.

Glad you're having fun back east!