HEY (IT'S A) DRAG CITY (RELEASE ROUNDUP)
|Larry "Fuzz-O" Dolman||Jul 18, 2020|
On a relative whim, I’ve decided to write reviews of every Drag City record I have in the house (and some that aren’t in the house, if you know what I mean). The plan is to keep adding to this page whenever I write about something on the label, so if you’re interested, check back semi-regularly here at https://blastitude.substack.com/p/hey-its-a-drag-city-release-roundup. I’ll put the most recent reviews right here at the top:
MAGIK MARKERS “2020” (DRAG CITY) Markers are back in 2020 with 2020, their first full-length album in quite awhile. (Six or seven years?) I’ve always dug their basic foundational group structure — the fearless drumming of Pete Nolan anchoring/driving/upsetting/countering the free-flowing voice & guitar poetics of frontperson Elisa Ambrogio, this essential duo usually (but not necessarily) augmented by a third or fourth piece that can anchor and/or embellish further as needed, this role or these roles having been filled in roughly chronological order by Leah Quimby, Ben Chasny, Joshua Burkett, Steve Gunn, currently John Shaw, and probably more — but also the way they push and pull against this basic structure, especially in the studio, particularly starting with their 2007 (!) album Boss. We see this right away on the first track here, “Surf’s Up” (a Markers original, not the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks composition, though columnated ruins still domino, even if this time only implicitly), eight minutes long, a slow melancholy dirge, the old ‘put the last song first’ move, with fat bassline/drumbeat heavy rock rhythm section moves, but instead of heavy rock guitar the third instrument is a plaintive piano, and Ambrogio immediately piques curiosity with her opening melancholy vocal line about surfing the waves on Saturn’s largest moon Titan (like Wikipedia sez: “the only known body in space, other than Earth, where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found”). After a couple-three verses, the piano begins to Garson its way out to lunch, slowly and steadily, eventually joined by a methodically soloing guitar that starts clean and then gets progressively gnarlier and more distorted, and by gosh, it’s some superb noise/primitive guitar expression for a good four jamming minutes straight (the “heavy outro” move), after which the song segues into track two, a more speedy/nervous/punky number called “Find You Ride,” as quick as this sentence just did (I swear it’s an uninterrupted take combining the two songs into one performance). Track three “That Dream (Shitty Beach)” is back to a stoner rock dirge, sung (I think) by one of the guys in the band, stretching on for almost 6 minutes, with some more crazed/primitive lead guitar playing — man, is that all Elisa? I wouldn’t doubt it. I still don’t know if she can play any chords, but she can play the hell out of some ur-punk guitar leads. Track four goes back to Elisa on vocals for one of her more stately pop ballads yet, “Born Dead,” and you start to realize the band you thought was a guitar band might now be more of a keyboard band (Hunky Dory move). But that’s not quite right either, because there’s plenty of guitar on 2020, it’s just that it all seems to be lead guitar, with “Born Dead” having some of the best yet, massed backwards wailing choirs, and again I say: man, is that all Elisa? Anyway, now that side one is over, I’ll stop doing a track-by-track, and leave the rest for you to discover (but I do have to mention the first song on side two, “You Can Find Me,” because its unabashed power-pop vibe makes me wonder if the band has been taking cues from Home Blitz — I could indeed see Daniel DiMaggio as the breathy guest vocalist on this track) (it’s also a total rhythm guitar song, forget what I said about Hunky Dory). Great album!
HONTATEDORI Konata Kanata 12” EP (BLUE CHOPSTICKS) Here’s one on Blue Chopsticks, a label curated by David Grubbs of Gastr Del Sol et al, that Drag City produces and distributes. I remember the initial Blue Chopsticks release being a Luc Ferrari CD way back around the turn of the millennium, thinking “I should check that out,” which at the time meant spending yet another $15 or so at Forced Exposure, so I never did, and haven’t really looked at the label since then, until right now, with this 4-song 12” EP released in 2018 by a Japanese group I’ve never heard it. Not even too sure which is the group name, and which is the title of the record, but I think I got it right. And I do recognize the name of Tetuzi Akiyama, he of the high-minimalist ultra-repetitive 2003 avant-blues-rock statement Don’t Forget to Boogie! Unlike that music, these four songs are very delicate and gossamer ballads, sung by Moe Kamura (also credited with “words, photos”). Akiyama and one Taku Unami play the atmospheric jazz/folk ballad guitars; Unami is also credited as “composer,” which explains why this group sounds nothing like Don’t Forget to Boogie! You can’t not immediately mention the duo music of Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille, like that one track on Moonyean, as a reference point, with strands of deconstructed bossa nova and Japanese court music also floating in the mist. The lyrics, sung in Japanese, and presented on the insert in both Japanese and English translation, are poetic and thoughtful: “Water near and far, beautiful to eyes / Rocks near and far, don’t ask the world (don’t seek the answer).” It’s a really nice group and EP, wish it was longer, or the group was more active; as far as I can tell this is their only release. (UPDATE: I’ve been happily corrected on Instagram by @thesadtropics!)
DMBQ Keeenly 2LP (GOD?) This is a very heavy rock band from Tokyo, and the band name is an acronym for Dynamite Masters Blues Quartet, which before I even listen has me thinking of those heavy psych/blues rock bands from post-war Japan that Julian Cope wrote about in his Japrocksampler book, like Blues Creation, and Speed, Glue & Shinki. Furthermore, DMBQ’s Wikipedia page claims the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. So you pretty much know what to expect when you put it on, but then the band somehow sounds even crazier than that. The riffs are wilder, more distorted and futuristic, like Speed, Glue & Shinki meet Lightning Bolt, but like also the mighty Soundgarden themselves, with that (quite strangely welcome) modern-radio metallic sheen to the whole thing. Wild stuff. POSTSCRIPT: Just a couple weeks after blasting Keeenly a few times and writing this review, I’m in the middle of a(n unrelated) Purling Hiss rabbit hole, checking to read anything Matt Korvette has written about ‘em on his YellowGreenRed web zine, and I came across this brief authentic field description of DMBQ by Purling Hiss bandleader Mike Polizze: “The first time I saw the Japanese band DMBQ was another memorable experience. Birds of Maya were playing a show with them and An Albatross who were touring together in 2004. The show was in Wilkes Barre at a place called Cafe Metropolis. I remember coming back inside the venue when they had just started playing. There were three guys on stage, gyrating with their guitars with long hair or afros and bell bottoms. In the back was a lady holding it down on the drums. They were musically telepathic and full of antics, hopefully they make it back soon.”
JOHN RENBOURN Live in Kyoto 1978 LP (DRAG CITY) This is a fantastic record, recorded in 1978, released in 2018. I’ve listened to it about 10 times in a row, which makes it the John Renbourn album I’ve listened to the most. I love his earliest stuff but have never sat down with an actual record, just cruised and shuffled around ‘em on Spotify and YouTube. Of course I love Renbourn’s band Pentangle but that’s a different band. And then those dollar bin staples under Renbourn’s name, Sir John Alot of Merrie England etc. from 1968 and The Lady and the Unicorn from 1970, both of which I like, but seem like his bid to do something ‘important’ for a major label, when he’s better off just sitting in a chair and going off on some standards and repertoire, which is all you get here, the pure uncut Renbourn, a 1978 concert performed at a coffee house in Kyoto, Japan. Renbourn had a strong cult following in Japan, including a guy named Masaki Batoh, who went on to form a little band called Ghost a few years later, who also recorded for Drag City as it happens (and is written about elsewhere on this page). Batoh was at this show, and writes the liner notes here, presenting you, the lucky listener, a clean recording of prime Renbourn just laying down tune after tune, all packed to the gills with pure solo guitar-and-vocal music. The Reverend Gary Davis’s “Candyman,” Renbourn’s own “Anji,” Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Kokomo Blues,” the Smithsonian Anthology’s “The Cuckoo,” and more, all songs spun through Renbourn’s distinct high-speed prismatic/cyclatic acoustic-guitar filigree/filter, his laconic vocals perfectly holding back the pace.
THE 4TH MOVEMENT s/t LP (DRAG CITY) You remember Death, the black proto-punk band from Detroit, that recorded blistering demos in 1975 that came close to getting them a record deal with Clive Davis and Columbia Records? A deal they didn’t get, mostly because they refused to change their name, after which they disappeared into undeserved obscurity? Until Drag City finally released the demos in 2009 as a great LP called ...For the Whole World to See? Maybe after that release you dug all the way into their story, or saw the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, and learned how they ended up relocating from Detroit to Burlington, Vermont, where they still live today, and have morphed into a reggae band called Lambsbread. This record represents another step on their journey, when, right after moving to Vermont, they became born-again Christians, changed their name to The 4th Movement, and in 1980 self-released a self-titled LP with track titles like “The CHRIST in You,” “He Even Reigns Today,” and “JESUS (Please Come).” In their reincarnation as The 4th Movement, Death remain a hard rock power trio, but the songwriting has gotten a little softer and less direct. More of a progressive feel, more discursive, with lighter riffs and melodies, more (Christian) rock opera than (punky) hard rock. It’s interesting music, and their talent is very much still on display, but it really is a different band, that just doesn’t burn and blister like Death did. You might say that The 4th Movement is to …For the Whole World to See as Tommy is to Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy. Yep, you just might.
BITCHIN BAJAS Rebajas 7CD (DRAG CITY) It’s crazy that this is a thing that exists, basically every Bitchin Bajas vinyl-only release to date, all issued for the first time on CD, and housed in this lovely gatefold sleeve that looks like the world’s sturdiest double LP. Ah, but there’s no vinyl within, just 8 pouches for 7 CDs and 1 booklet, the latter a “Software and Owner’s Manual” in which all 11 of the original vinyl-only source releases are carefully detailed and track-listed for each CD, complete with color repros of all the covers, inner sleeves, and labels. Overall, a great way to get inside the now decade-old musical world of the Bitchin Bajas, which has become an expansive one, initially a solo and side project of Chicago mainstay Cooper Crain, growing over the years into a steady trio (Crain plus Dan Quinlivan and Rob Frye) with frequent guests. At first, Crain’s main band was Cave; if that band explored the motorik/mechano/Dingerbeat side of krautrock, Bitchin Bajas got more into the drummerless/kosmische/free-floating/modular-synth side. In fact, knowing of the Bajas as a prominent local band, even seeing them play a live show a few years back, I’d initially decided they were mere expert reenactors, too on-the-nose, so good at kosmische drone and modular synth minimalism that they were in fact too good at it. I’ve finally learned that I was wrong, and that the Bajas are the real (American) deal. They’re not too good, they’re just plain damn good. It’s from the heart, and the spirit moves, which is all that matters. I’ve been spending entire days on end now listening to various combinations of 5 of these 7 discs at a time, on multidisc shuffle just like God himself (in this case Drag City) intended, and right now I’m on disc 7 track 1 “2303” (so named, perhaps, to ponder what the world will be like 283 years into the future, but mainly because it’s 23:03 minutes long, originally taking up Side 3 of their 2017 double-vinyl release Bajas Fresh), and there’s a bird right outside my window that twitters (original meaning of the word) every 10-20 seconds while this music is emanating, and every single time the bird makes its sound, it fits in with the music PERFECTLY, each time newly beautiful in almost the exact same way, and I’m reminded, as I am at least once a week, of what Michael Karoli said in Can: The Documentary (1999, d. Rudi Dolezal, Hannes Rossacher): “The music was good as soon as every single sound, or noise — a hooting car for example — was fully integrated into the music, automatically. Then, we knew that we were playing well. If noise was disturbing, then we knew that it was the music that was wrong, and not the noise. I think this is important."
SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE ‘RTZ’ 3LP (DRAG CITY) Speaking of massive archival Drag City releases by preeminent purveyors of psychedelic music from the last 10-20 years, how about this lovely triple LP (foldout style kinda like Decade) by Six Organs of Admittance, aka Ben Chasny and friends, but mostly Ben Chasny, especially in the early days, which this release mostly represents. His self-titled debut record came out in 1998, twenty-goddamn-two years ago as of this writing, and RTZ gathers up various limited odd-vinyl releases that came soon after, like his side of a year 2000 split LP with the Charalambides, his third of a three-way split CD from 2003 (with the Vibracathedral Orchestra and The Magic Carpathians), a subscription-only CD EP from 2002 on the Three Lobed label, previously unreleased recordings from 1998-2001 that make up a whole side of RTZ, and finally the entirety of the Nightly Trembling lathe-cut LP from 2004, a record that stands right up to his first two albums when it comes to dark forest-bound excellence. I gotta say that when Chasny came on the scene in the post-alternative fin of the 20th siecle, his music sounded to me exactly like what self-released psychedelic folk music from right then should’ve sounded like, dark and atmospheric, haunted distant vocals, rich blend of acoustic and electric instruments, the works. In fact, after seeing his private record label’s McKinleyville, California address on the insert, the first LP often sounded not so much like mere music, but a pure droning emanation from the coastal rain forest landscape of Northern California itself. Get deeper into the sound, and you see and hear all the tendrils and vines and voices of the trees and, yes, sometimes the voices of the humans too. (After all, “human” just means “man” of the “humus,” the earth/ground/soil.) Believe me, it’s heavy music. Glancing at his discography now, I think School of the Flower (2005) was when he got out of the forest, off of the humus. It was a liberatory album, with the help of drummer Chris Corsano, halfway to a free jazz album (I hear it now as being in the bold avant-folk tradition of Michael Cooper, who I didn’t know of at the time), also improvising its way into deep PSF-label guitar-noise caverns. To me his records have sounded different ever since School of the Flower, less shadowy, less cloaked. Maybe because it was his first release on Drag City, and he started using studios instead of recording at home, and bringing more outside personnel into the process. (I could be wrong about some of these assumptions, but scroll down to Purling Hiss reviews for a similar trajectory…)
CHRIS GANTRY At the House of Cash LP (DRAG CITY) Man, where did this guy come from? Well, 1973, in Nashville, Tennessee, is where this album came from, recorded at Johnny Cash’s home studio, but I can barely call this country music. Like Mr. Cash himself said to Gantry after listening to the record: “Chris, I don’t think even the drug people are gonna understand it.” Baroque dark-romantic folk-rock, without any Southern twang, more like Tim Buckley than Townes Van Zandt, with creepy synthesizers lurking in the corners. Before this Gantry had success as a more traditional songwriter, one of his songs “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” being a major hit for Glen Campbell in 1968, but this album is from 1973, written directly after Gantry experienced an intense peyote trip in Mexico, and it’s way out there. When I say Tim Buckley, I don’t just mean the early wordy/baroque Goodbye and Hello style, I’m talking full-avant Lorca mode. It’s a fascinating album, but I’m not gonna lie, I happened to put on Pure Prairie League’s “Falling in and Out of Love” after this (side 2 of my 25-cent copy of Bustin’ Out, prelude to the hit song “Amie,” which then quotes it back at the end, you know how it goes on classic rock radio), and I genuinely felt like it was doing some of the things Gantry was doing, and in a more beautiful and memorable manner. I’ll admit it, Craig Fuller > Chris Gantry.
MICKEY NEWBURY Looks Like Rain LP (DRAG CITY); MICKEY NEWBURY Heaven Help the Child LP (DRAG CITY); MICKEY NEWBURY Better Days LP (DRAG CITY) Well speaking of outlaw country, here’s the guy who literally started the whole damn movement when, after scoring all kinds of hits as a staff writer for Acuff-Rose, and being disappointed with the syrupy studio-system production of his 1968 solo debut LP Harlequin Melodies, he decamped to a garage studio in residential north Nashville called Cinderella Sound and made records the way he wanted to. Honestly folks, that studio move was what got the outlaw country ball rolling. He slowly recorded three albums there: Looks Like Rain (1969), which he considered his true debut, Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), and Heaven Help the Child (1973), all haunting, moody, atmospheric, and very downbeat. In 1969 Looks Like Rain was to Nashville what the film Easy Rider was to Hollywood, with liner notes by another burgeoning Nashville songwriter with outlaw tendencies named Kris Kristofferson (who said of Newbury, “he was my hero and still is”), and nods to psychedelia with sitar overdubs and “rain & train sound effects” that were dubbed in from a Mystic Moods Orchestra LP. The heavy atmosphere created was given a hat-tip a few years later when Waylon Jennings, who took the outlaw country ball from Newbury and scored quite a few touchdowns, sang about “Hank Williams pain songs and Newbury train songs” in his big hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” In 2011, Drag City scored a licensing deal and reissued Newbury’s Cinderella Sound trilogy, as well as Better Days, a new archival LP featuring never-before released 1972 home-recorded demos and a 1970 radio session. It fits right in with the trilogy, with an even more stark atmosphere.
AZITA Year LP (DRAG CITY) Wow! Azita! Been following her musical career for years, ever since she was in the Scissor Girls and then Bride of No-No in the 1990s, and was blown away by her surprising 2003 solo turn into quite professional but still deeply weird piano lounge pop rock, shot through with her expressive no-wave vocals. Seriously, check the Azita debut Enantiodromia, also on Drag City. It’s one of my favorite records of the last 20 years, no joke. Not just for her great vocal tunes like “Better End in Time,” “On the Road,” “Ooh Ooh Johnny,” and especially the magisterial “Reopening,” but also for the three frankly jaw-dropping solo piano instrumentals, most notably the 7-minute “Departure of the Boats.” Would you believe it took me 17 years to own another Azita record? I loved Enantiodromia so much, I didn’t need another, even as deeply trusted cohorts like El Sienko and T. Tremaine were telling me how her second album Life on the Fly (from 2004, also on Drag City) was even better. Sure, I was rocking “Miss Tony” on Chic-a-Go-Go over and over on YouTube, but never heard anything else on Fly. Nor did I hear her next two full-lengths, or EP, and when, today, I finally did hear another album by Azita, it was this one, Year, and even that was released 8 years ago in 2012. She hasn’t released anything since, but that’s OK. She’s given a lot of worthwhile albums to the world already, and Year is honestly just about as good as Enantiodromia. And that’s even considering “Something Happened,” the 8-minute straight-up reggae song on side two! First time I heard it, I have to admit I cringed, but by the second time, I was appreciating it many ways: her bold melody, the band legitimately playing their asses off, as well as incorporating legit dub effects… and then that strange and tangential but beautiful non-reggae ending movement?
BILL CALLAHAN “Expanding Dub” b/w “Highs in the Mid-40s Dub” 12” (DRAG CITY) Okay, first Azita does reggae, and then the very next record on the pile is dub remixes of Bill Callahan?? I’m like, that’s two non-Jamaicans in a row, this might be annoying. But it’s not really annoying at all. These Bill Callahan tracks are good, both sides almost immediately winning me over. Bill’s plaintive baritone vocals are given an actual legit dub treatment, that is, a line excerpted here and there, tons of lines dropped out, lots of echo on the lines that stay, and Bill’s vocal style is so strongly his, that it’s not generic wannabe dub. Don’t worry, he’s not trying to toast up in here. I’m seeing now that this is a 12” single from 2013, advancing two tracks from the 2014 LP Have Fun With God, which is itself “a ‘dub’ version of Callahan’s 2013 album, Dream River, mixed by one Brian Beattie. Didn’t know about any of this before. Kind of amazing.
SMOG Knock Knock CD (DRAG CITY); SMOG Dongs of Sevotion CD (DRAG CITY) Since we’re already talking about Bill “Smog” Callahan, I had to briefly mention these two records together, because I had an eerily similar experience with both a couple years apart: both woke me up while I was sleeping deeply in the back seat of a car hurtling down an interstate highway. I even remember the specific songs; from Knock Knock it was “Cold Blooded Old Times,” and from Dongs of Sevotion it was “Bloodflow.” Both incredible songs that have deeply haunted me ever since (the former has made me cry at least three times, especially the lines “And though you were/Just a little squirrel/You understood every word”), but it’s not just Callahan’s singing and songwriting that does the haunting, it’s also the way the albums are recorded that makes them particularly strange to wake up to. The way you can hear the space around each instrument, which means you can immediately understand every word Callahan is talk-singing, in such close-up (cold-blooded?) clarity. The song is very much in the room with you, and its disposition is icy and cryptic, and you’re half-asleep, already disoriented, and only half-conscious.
ARNOLD DREYBLATT, THE ORCHESTRA OF EXCITED STRINGS Nodal Excitation LP (DRAG CITY) It’s true, the excitation going on here is indeed very nodal. Would you believe this is the first time I’ve actually listened to the music of Arnold Dreyblatt? I mean, it was hyped up in zines (and sometimes even magazines) 20 years ago, when the mighty Jim O introduced it to underground newbs like myself via his Dexter’s Cigar CD label, and I even remember being at the homes of friends and seeing the disc in their collection, but I don’t think I had ever heard it until tonight, via this 2015 Drag City LP reissue. It’s good! Definitely minimalist. I mean it’s no Remko Scha Machine Guitars (also from 1982!), but damn sure close enough.
PURLING HISS Water on Mars LP (DRAG CITY); PURLING HISS High Bias LP (DRAG CITY) In doing the background research required to write this review, I realized that I have not listened to a Purling Hiss full-length since his/their second, Hissteria, which was released way back in 2010. The last record I’ve listened to by them at all is their side of a 2011 split 12” with the Puffy Areolas, a track called “Walking Down the Street,” and that is such a great slice of dusted heavy guitar psychsploitation (seriously check that thing out), no wonder I dropped out for awhile… who needs anything else, when you can just jam that track over and over? But not long after that, after I stopped keeping up, Purling Hiss signed to Drag City, and evolved from a one-man lo-fi 4-track guitar-overload solo project to a committed touring heavy power trio, and not only that, vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Mike Polizze evolved from a pure riffer/shredder to a legit songwriter with songs and vocal hooks galore. I’m finally checking out the Hiss’s Drag City debut, Water on Mars from 2013, and its most recent Drag City full-length as of this writing, High Bias from 2016, and I expected them to be good, but these albums are really good. Filled with the usual earthshaking dinosaur riffs and screaming solos you might expect, but there’s a well-developed and effective power-pop/new-wave/UK DIY undercurrent that goes really well with the Dinosaur/Sabbath/Hendrix heaviness and shredding. On these Drag City records I’m also hearing Beach Boys, Vaselines, Syd Barrett, Swell Maps, jeez even Echo & the Bunnymen.
THE SILENCE Nine Suns, One Morning LP + 7” (DRAG CITY) This is the new band singer/songwriter/bandleader Masaki Batoh formed after his legendary band Ghost disbanded in 2015. Batoh is nothing if not ambitious; The Silence seems like a fully-formed band in its own right, notably different than Ghost, less ethereal and mysterious, more pop melody, heavy groove, and hammy fists. I put it on tonight when I was tired, and it’s a weird one to fall in and out of sleep to, sounding like some groovy Italian giallo soundtrack here, a full-flight Soft Machine jam there, and, any time horn player Ryuichi Yoshida takes the lead with his honking, theatrical, show-tune R&B presence, visions of spy jazz and theater pit groups and German krautjazz like Passport and Xhol Caravan (especially when they were Soul Caravan) all go dancing through my sleepy head. By the last two songs on the album, both long ones, the band really starts to click for me, their power and range and fearlessness something to be reckoned with. This Batoh guy is pretty good (although he does seem to be well aware of the fact, judging from this interview anyway). Also comes with a 7” of two cover songs; a lovely rendition of the Stones’ “No Expectations,” and a goofy version of “Louie Louie” that Yoshida particularly bobo-honks his way through.
RED KRAYOLA Amor and Language 12” EP (DRAG CITY) Released in 1995, at the height of the (mostly) Chicago-based all-star ‘post-rock’ Red Krayola line-up, mainstay Mayo Thompson joined by David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke of Gastr Del Sol, John McEntire of Tortoise, George Hurley of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, Tom Watson of Slovenly, that Stephen Prina guy, so many more, but what’s strange is how much some/most/(all?) of this songwriting would’ve fit on their 1968 album God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With Them, just with different arrangements. (One of the craziest things about God Bless is that you can almost think of it as a straight guitar/bass/drums trio album, practically like a Minutemen album, speaking of George Hurley. I’m serious, that’s how ahead of their time the Krayola were.) I think now that Amor and Language is almost as old (25 years) as God Bless was then (27 years), it’s much easier to hear both as Mayo Thompson just doing the same damn thing he was always doing, just with more extensive instrumentation, and more extensive musicianship.
ROYAL TRUX Platinum Tips & Ice Cream LP (DRAG CITY) Taken from the reunion shows they played in 2015, sounding heavy, grungy, and as weird as ever. Fat and thick spaced-out rock’n’roll music. Trux made like The Cramps and #stayedsick. Jennifer is as strong and weird of a presence as ever. Neil plays things close to his chest with meat-rhythm garage-rock aplomb until opening up widely on “Blue is the Frequency.” To close out they bring back “Ice Cream,” not as Twin Infinitives sputtering electro weirdness, but also opened-up wide: shy, stark, and dubby Afrobeat.
ROYAL TRUX Veterans of Disorder LP (DRAG CITY) Hey, speaking of “Blue is the Frequency,” this is where it first appeared, back in 1999, even more opened-up in the studio than the aforementioned 2015 live version. It’s the epic closer here, and the first half, before the guitar-extrapolation second half, is a slinkier bedroom-soul tune than it is on Platinum Tips, that whole album having a raw/heavy live pub-rock approach. Ah, but Veterans… I remember when this album came out. I was pretty into Trux at the time, having kept up with the three records preceding it, especially the one before it Accelerator, in fact driving over 3 hours to see the band on that tour in Lawrence, Kansas. (Dave Pajo on bass and Jon Theodore on drums were a superb rhythm section, and Neil and Jennifer kinda floated their songs across the top.) But, for some reason I never actually heard Veterans at the time, even after hearing raves from a few heads in the grapevine. This is when you still had to buy a record to hear it, or know someone who bought it, or hope the local college station picked up on it, and none of that happened until now, 21 years later, and wow, on first listen I think it’s a warped masterpiece. Side one is a series of six two-minute miniatures, each a little bizarro-world pop-rock classic, wedded to incongruous but still awesome heavy Latin-style percussion breakdowns, with hilariously fast fade-outs. On his recent Howling Hex album Denver (2015), there was press that Neil Hagerty was playing an underground rock version of norteño music, but as far as I’m concerned he was practically inventing some kind of gringo norteño del futuro back in 1999 on side one of this record. Side two stretches out a little more, the aforementioned 8-minute closer “Blue” preceded by two inzane 5-minute-plus tracks, “Sickazz Dog” which, talk about miniatures, is this weird Faust Tapes-ish “Revolution #9”-ish collage of like 17 wildly different short moods, someone flipping radio stations in a surreal interzone, which finally settles (?) into a verse-chorus kinda thing based around the title, with more of that proto-norteño percussion lurking in the background. In its own way, the second song “Coming Out Party” is just as weird, some kind of freaked-out bass-bouncing reimagining of Dylan’s Desire period, one of those side-two world-music trifles from Bob’s storehouse of whimsy, “Back Diamond Bay” or “Mozambique” or some shit. Jennifer sings one of her most involved texts, telling a detailed story about… well, so many things, you know (I have no idea what)…
ROYAL TRUX Radio Video EP (DRAG CITY) In the days of Napster and Audiogalaxy I was out there looking for whatever random Royal Trux music could be pirated, and at one point downloaded and constantly replayed a stand-alone MP3 of this mind-blowing track of theirs called “Inside Game,” a super-driving dubbed-out funky-drummer hip-hop mish-mash that’s abstrusely about playing pick-up basketball, maybe? It’s like Trux looked at the Grand Royal label’s entire catalog, hopes, and dreams and said “we can do all of that in an afternoon.” I wasn’t really paying attention to new release schedules at the time, so I only knew “Inside Game” as this crazy Royal Trux song from Audiogalaxy, later coming across it humorously as a demo tape by a fictional Chicago skate-punk band in High Fidelity (2000, d. Stephen Frears, possibly the corniest music movie of all time that isn’t a song-and-dance musical). Now I finally know that it was the lead-off track on Royal Trux’s 2000 release Radio Video EP, which has two more tracks in the same style, all built around similar infectious “drum loops” (credited on the sleeve to “Adam & Eve,” aka Hagerty & Herrema themselves). They seriously could’ve made a splash (and gotten signed to Grand Royal) if this was their entire approach to a career, but on this EP it just sounds like they messed around with “drum loops” for a weekend, with ridiculous lyrics that are even more improvised and unfiltered than usual, like how in “Dirty Headlines,” Hagerty fully commits — not once, not twice, but thrice — to a chorus that goes “You’re so rank/You probably try to lick your own skank.” Another track in the style, “On My Mind,” is almost as good as “Inside Game,” with refreshingly non-Herrema trip-house diva guest vocals by one Reeta Young (mind you, I love Herrema’s vocals). There’s also two oddball tracks mixed in that don’t fit the ‘lost weekend with a drum machine’ vibe, most notably “Victory Chimp: Episode 3,” a crazed acoustic guitar/bongos/vocal performance piece, Hagerty (I hear no sign of Herrema) going full extended Alan Bishop/Captain Beefheart spoken word rant, recorded live in Chicago at Border’s Bookstore (I’m guessing the one that used to be on Broadway & Clark, RIP).
ROYAL TRUX Twin Infinitives 2LP (DRAG CITY) (Ed. note: the word “mutant” is intentionally used 5 times in this review as an adjective.) Hey, remember this one? A little Twinfin action for ya? I probably haven’t actually sat down with it in over 15 years, but here it is, almost 2AM on a Friday night, getting so late it isn’t even Friday anymore, and I’ve had a couple three, so here we go… time to “enter its universe” aka “write an overlong and solipsistic track-by-track free-association reaction to an entire double LP.” The very first thing I remember, just a couple minutes in, is how much I love this record. Every track is a hit. I mean, opener “Solid Gold Teeth” is horrible free-form ranting, but it’s only 2 minutes long and it certainly establishes a mood. It does what it’s supposed to do, which is open things up. Could be a tune-up, could be a trap-door into another dimension, a couple refractions over, a space where Trux are able to settle into the next two tracks, still one of my favorite mutant-groove one-two punches of the entire 1990s: “Ice Cream,” with its zombie-pop girl-group hooks and alien rave whistles, and then the real master-blaster “Jet Pet,” a downright nasty sputtering free-form mutant-funk workout, their “Trampled Under Foot” for sure. Side one closes out with two more miniatures, both around the 2-minute mark, both with perfect titles, first the jaw-droppingly good electro mutant rhythm track “RTX-USA,” and the second one “Kool Down Wheels,” another noise/improv howler that mirrors the side opener “Solid Gold Teeth.” Wow. Side one alone is why I love Twin Infinitives. You put on side A of this record and immediately know you’re gonna get the proverbial ‘sprawling double LP,’ especially when you scan ahead on the track listing and see that side C is gonna be just one song over 15 minutes long, called “(Edge of the) Ape Oven” no less. Then, to have Side B kick off with “Chances are the Comets in Our Future,” a track that has always haunted me, Jennifer in tour de force mode, over the most scrambled and alienating cross-rhythms on the album thus far, which is saying a lot. The next track is another classic, even if in name only, “Yin Jim and the Vomit Creature.” A little too on-the-nose, as it’s a Neil vocal where he just kinda makes vomiting sounds (hey, I always thought the title/song combo of “White Cat Heat” by noted Trux influence The Godz was a little too on-the-nose too, I’m more of a “Permanent Green Light” kinda guy), but the blatant blues-rock shuffle-guitar playing is actually free-form rad, and unique to the rest of the album. Last track on side B has another superb rock title: “Osiris,” and it’s another of the steady killer broken mutant guitar/electro grooves that really make this album a true minimalist rock powerhouse for the late 20th Century, albeit one of the most rhythmically baffled/baffling such powerhouses. Next comes the aforementioned “Ape Oven” side-longer, and it’s actually not quite the free-form blow-out the title might lead you to expect, more of a light meander, still with wild drum machine programming, now a totally different approach, that salsa/hip-hop influence that crops up throughout the Trux oeuvre. Add exploratory piano as the rhythm instrument, instead of guitar, with subdued questing double vocals, and you’ve got a surprisingly restrained and textured track that reminds me of another side-long track by them, “Domo Des Burros (Two Sticks),” as released in 2002 on Side A of the Hand of Glory LP. (And whaddayaknow, "Domo Des Burros (Two Sticks)” and “(Edge of the) Ape Oven” were both recorded at Lowdown Studios in San Francisco in 1989. Could be same sessions, could be same week, could be different takes of the same jam, given different titles. I think “Domo Des Burros” has a lot more vocals, though.) Side D (of Twin Infinitives) closes out the album with another series of mostly miniatures. I cannot stress again how perfect the track titling is throughout this album (with the possible exception of the “Vomit Creature” trifle). Just listen to the litany that is the last five song titles, not one wrong syllable: “Florida Avenue Theme” (short ambient noise piece), “Lick My Boots” (Jennifer tune, more lurching weird-whistle rhythmic and vocal sass), “Glitterbust” (Neil & Jennifer tune, mutant metal, serious lurch), “Funky Son” (more free-floating rhythmic baffle), “Ratcreeps” (sounds just like its title and/or super-deconstructed Cramps), and “NY Avenue Bridge” (perfect closer, a subdued Jennifer tune with Neil jamming a noise-free and almost ragtime blues piano). Wow. My favorite listen to this ever, tbh. As the French would say, “total classique.” Now I can go to bed, and it’s only 3:10am! Late night but not too late night, right? (OK, maybe a little too late.)
ROYAL TRUX Hand of Glory LP (DRAG CITY) Big underhanded classic, I love this LP. Two side-longers. Side One is called “Two Sticks (Domo Des Burros),” but sounds to me like a slightly more laconic unused take of “(Edge of the) Ape Oven.” (Both recorded at Lowdown studio in San Francisco, in the year 1989.) Side Two is an extended harsh noise piece, seriously, divided into 5 track titles that I won’t bother typing out and seem pretty arbitrary as far as related sonics. Minimal sleeve & packaging is very ‘80s noise’ too.
BLACK BANANAS Rad Times Xpress IV LP (DRAG CITY); THE HOWLING HEX Denver LP (DRAG CITY) These two records not so much. Jennifer Herrema as bandleader in 2012, and Neil Hagerty as bandleader in 2016, respectively, and with the duo chemistry long-gone, the fire has seemingly gone out, twice. I don’t want to judge too quickly, but I did listen to both records twice at least, and a bit more on Spotify after that, so it’s a somewhat informed opinion. The Black Bananas is all rad soundz/no songs, plenty of blasted bass, meaningless Mutron licks, endless screaming background guitar lixx, rad titlez like “TV Trouble,” “Acid Song,” “Hot Stupid,” “RTX Go-Go,” and “Killer Weed,” and one of the coolest coverz ever so I might keep this copy anyway, but after two plus listens I still can’t remember a single hook. I think the Howling Hex LP was the one being billed as Hagerty’s take on norteño music, and I don’t know norteño music enough to know if Neil is successful or not in that regard… but as a new rock album by Neil Hagerty, I don’t think it’s that successful, just upbeat repetitious bouncing-tempo rock songs that, as with Black Bananas, don’t seem to have too many powerful hooks. There is one great song on here, though. It’s called “Look Out,” and I think it’s the only song on the album that isn’t an upbeat rocker, instead a kinda spooky melancholy ballad with some really creatively melodic sad chord changes, sparse vocals, and great psychedelic guitar playing throughout. And side note: it’s cool that Neil invited co-writers like Lexie Mountain and James Jackson Toth to work on some of these songs — Neil has always been an oft-great melodicist and can write some incredible lyrics (assuming that’s him who wrote “Shockwave Rider,” for example), but if Mountain and Toth are on here, the lyrics are probably going to be more incredible than usual. Wish there were a few more hooks to help me notice ‘em…
CORY HANSON The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo LP (DRAG CITY) File under “Records on Drag City that I had no idea existed, by artists I’ve never heard of.” When it comes to Drag City, even these formerly unknown records are good. It really is a good label. Cory Hanson sings and plays long-form baroque folk rock, his acoustic guitar and haunted tenor vocals the basis of sparse and spacy arrangements where string and percussion arrangements suddenly come to life in mid-song. Harper’s Stormcock is a pretty valid reference point, Tim Buckley of course, but Hanson’s got his own thing too. It’s pretty darn good. I’m now learning that Hanson is the singer/guitarist for the band Wand, who have put out something like 5 records in 5 years, all on Drag City, and I’ve never heard a millisecond of any of it. Any Wand fans out there?