RECENT LISTENING #19
Derek Monypeny, David Byrne, the Dead C x 2, Eugene Chadbourne & Sun City Girls, The Perfect Me
DEREK MONYPENY The Hand As Dealt 2LP + Plays Sun City Girls Songs on the Shahi Baaja 7” (2182 RECORDING COMPANY, 2021) The 2182 Recording Company out of Bisbee, Arizona may be a relatively unknown record label, but when they go and do something like take the uncompromising music of Derek Monypeny, an (also relatively unknown) underground solo electric guitarist (and solo shahi baaja-ist), also from the Great American Southwest (Monypeny grew up in Yuma, Arizona and is currently based in Joshua Tree, California), and release four 20-minute vinyl sides of it, in a double-gatefold package, with a level of publishing quality that, when it comes to contemporary record labels that release heavy music, is up there with Southern Lord themselves, well, you know they mean serious business. Def need to check some more of 2182’s releases, like the duo LP by Sir Richard Bishop & W. David Oliphant (a true weird-Phoenix Sun City Girls/Maybe Mental hookup), or the trio double-LP by the Alternative Particle Choir (another SCG/MM hookup, this time with Oliphant, Richard’s brother Alan Bishop representing SCG, and one Joel Anderson), not to mention the archival Sun City Girls Live at the Sky Church LP/DVD that the label has also released. As for this double LP and the uncompromising underground solo electric guitarist (and solo shahi baaja-ist) who made it, Blastitude readers might in fact recognize the name of our friend and sometime contributor Derek Monypeny. His band Alto! released a couple scorchers in the ‘10s, but I think the last new solo thing I heard by Derek was an LP from 2011 called Don’t Bring Me Down, Bruce. Can’t believe that was 10 years ago, and there is indeed evolution on display here; Bruce was a fine album of relatively untreated solo oud playing, but on Dealt, Derek has taken what he started on Side B of Bruce and gotten just as serious as his new record label. You can tell by the extended durations throughout; side one has three shorter tracks, but sides two, three, and four are each one long track, for a total of only six tracks on the entire double LP. You can also tell he’s serious by the oft-extreme sonic treatments on his guitar, things really coming to a head at the end of side two’s “The Tamarisk,” with its closing electric-guitar freakout-loop lockgroove-that-isn’t-a-lockgroove metal-machine room-clearer move. Side three gets us back onto a more traditionally pleasant timbre, what I think is Monypeny’s credited shahi baaja, which sounds like, I don’t know, a tamboura but with more frets? I don’t specifically know the instrument, and haven’t even googled it (I swear), but I do think Derek is onto something with it, taking his strong expressive powers, adding a little tone-science FX to the roomsound, and then simply getting after ‘it’, cosmic-style. Dedications to Umm Kulthum (and her Orchestra), Terry Riley, Alice Coltrane, and Don Cherry should tell you something of the basic mind-set here, and this is a modern-day psych record for sure, one that I played six to eight times in the first two days, absorbing and reabsorbing the alien landscapes therein. And sometimes playing the 7-inch in between, self-explanatorily titled Derek Monypeny Plays Sun City Girls Songs on the Shahi Baaja, more Arizoniana, with the two songs in question being classic SCG crowd-pleasers “The Vinegar Stroke” and “My Painted Tomb,” making for a pleasant aperitif before (or digestif after) the sumptuous double-LP meal.
DAVID BYRNE The Catherine Wheel (WARNER BROS.) Hey, psst… c’mere… don’t let this get around, but [looks cautiously in both directions]… I think I might be starting to like the Talking Heads a little bit. It was a great multi-decade run of dislike where — other than 1. always considering Tina Weymouth to be a total boss, 2. conceding that Remain in Light is “actually pretty good,” and 3. watching Stop Making Sense all the way through once, also actually p retty good (but doesn’t anyone else think Adrian Belew kinda overdoes it with the rhino noises?) — I basically refused to acknowledge their existence. However, I just finished reading On a Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno by David Sheppard, and enjoyed it to where I made a career-spanning Brian Eno playlist on The Enemy Radio to accompany the book (something I’ve been known to sometimes go and do). Wanting this Eno playlist to be authoritative, I grudgingly put like ten Talking Heads songs on there that he had produced. I put a good ten U2 songs that he produced on there too, but the Talking Heads songs I might actually start to like. And, while I steadfastedly hold on to my belief that Eno/Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is overrated, damn, turns out I really do like Dave’s Catherine Wheel joint from the same year (1981), even though the two albums are quite similar (despite the Byrne solo credit on Catherine Wheel, Eno is all over half of the tracks, and both have a sort of mostly-instrumental laboratory-funk feel). I can see why Ghosts is the one more talked about, with its singular paranoid uptempo urban weird-nightmare flavor, but every single time I give it a try I’m bored by the crude formula, which is white funk groove + random sample of non-white person (preferably singing and/or preaching) and voila, finished track! But on Catherine Wheel, Eno and Byrne are doing something that seems much more aesthetically integrated and less appropriative. There’s hardly any samples at all, just wicked grooves, something like Steve Reich meets the wide-open dance tracks that Arthur Russell had started making just a year or two earlier. (It’s probably not a coincidence that there’s a track named “Dinosaur” on here.) WAIT, stop the press… here’s the problem with writing about an album during your very first listen… things were going great until track fourteen, “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks),” one of the few tracks on here with a Byrne lead vocal, and it’s immediately just the worst, everything I dislike about this guy. He might even think he’s doing “hip hop” on this track. It’s that bad. P.S. The album ends with two more annoying (and overlong) Byrne vocal cuts, “What a Day That Was” and “Big Blue Limousine,” his ‘grandiose-yet-ennui-ridden Americana’ routine at its most cloying (you can tell just by the titles) but almost everything else is great, and especially check out “Poison” for a nice monster groove, apparently the track made by Byrne solo using synths and drum machines, this time not even close to being ruined by his melodramatic ballad vocal setting. P.P.S. Not only is there a track called “Dinosaur,” there’s also a track called “Black Flag,” though this one doesn’t sound anything like its namesake, more like an airy whimsical krautrock instrumental, also with Byrne playing all the instruments. P.P.P.S. OK, up there when I was saying the only Talking Heads stuff I liked, I should’ve added their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” which is still dope as hell and was one of the iciest and weirdest things outside of the Dan you could hear on mainstream FM radio when I was a kid. (It reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979.)
THE DEAD C Repent CD (1996, Siltbreeze) Still grappling with the Dead C at least once a week. I don’t mean I put on their records that often, just that their blasted inner landscapes are imprinted deep within me, and that’s how often I hear and feel them ringing in my head/brain/soul/etc. It’s probably their 1990 album Trapdoor Fucking Exit that has haunted me the most (it hit hard when Heather Leigh recently called the album “sexy” on The Quietus, hell yes it is), but Harsh 70s Reality and Tusk and my personal favorite The White House certainly all haunt me too. Hardly ever listened to their 1996 album Repent back in the day, though. The cheap paste-on cover made me think ‘live leftovers release’, and I never did buy my own copy, though I did make a cassette dub from a friend’s copy. Listened to it a couple times, and then it got shelved for over 20 years. Now (like right now this minute, on May 15th of the year 2021), I’m going through old issues of Opprobrium, and here in the fourth issue from December 1997, editor-in-chief Nick Cain is writing about this fertile creative mid-period that the Dead C were going through, as it was happening, in a review of Tusk, which was released earlier that year: “Tusk can be seen as the third installment in a polar-blurring triptych (started by The White House and continued by Repent) which, much more so than their self-consciously ‘freeform’ album, Operation of the Sun, details their gradual mutation from a rock band with free tendencies into a free band with rock tendencies.” So I can now see Repent as a bridge between The White House and Tusk, which gets me to pull out all three records of this Dead C ditch trilogy (Cain’s “triptych” + Mosurock’s “ditch years” + Young’s “ditch trilogy” all conflated by me), which means I’m grabbing that same dubbed cassette of Repent for the first time in said 20 years, and, spinning right now, it suddenly sounds like what might just be the most furiously locked-in album of the Dead C’s career, when they were going as deep as they could into free-improv territory while still fully retaining the rock’n’roll backbeat. In other words, Robbie Yeats hadn’t gotten sick of playing the drums yet. (See next review.)
THE DEAD C s/t 2D (2000, Language Recordings) After these very heavy and very free rock-mindmeld breakthroughs of Repent (1996) and Tusk (1997) came a bit of a hiatus. No releases for three years. Did they burn out? Was the psychic and physical strength required to maintain that mindmeld just too intense? In the year 2000 came something of a response to these types of questions, the Dead C’s first-ever self-titled release, a double CD called The Dead C which was also the first release on their own Language Recordings label. I now see this release as clearly marking the completion point of the “gradual mutation” described in the Opprobrium review mentioned previously. If they had started as a “rock band with free tendencies” and on The White House, Repent, and Tusk progressively mutated into a “free band with rock tendencies,” we now see their hiatus as a sort of chrysalid period, from which they emerged in 2000 with The Dead C double-CD as a now fully “free band,” the rock tendencies they’d mastered in 1997 almost literally completely gone. Two different band members have said as much about this period, first drummer Robbie Yeats in an April 2007 session of The Wire’s ongoing Invisible Jukebox feature, moderated by their old friend Nick Cain. Cain asks the group “Why did The Dead C sound the way it did?,” to which Yeats responds: “I got really sick of playing the drums.” Second, lead guitarist Bruce Russell in 27 Minutes With Mr. Noisy, the excellent 2013 documentary his daughter Olive Russell made about him, quoted at the 8:30 mark: “In the beginning we had rough songs that we would use as sort of skeletons to work around, but in the last 15 years or so, we’ve completely made everything up on the spot, and that goes for public shows, performances we do, making albums. Everything just comes out of thin air. We just play and see what happens, and we record that.” In other words, they completely stopped writing songs, which is a big admission, and if my math is correct, he’s referring to the year 1998, let’s just say right in the middle of their hiatus, which makes The Dead C their first completely improvised release. It’s really something how many different ways this shift is marked, a true reset for the band’s career: not only their first all-improvised album, but their first self-titled album, their first album after a hiatus/gestation of three years, their first album of a the new century/millennium, their first album not to be released on the Siltbreeze label after a classic multi-year partnership. The leaving of Siltbreeze primarily may have been for business reasons, but in a 2006 interview with Terminal Boredom, label proprieter Tom Lax suggests that he was not aligned with the band’s aesthetic changes either: “Had they given me the s/t double CD that followed their last Siltbreeze release ('Tusk') and expected me to release it, things might have gotten ugly,” going on to call it “that lugubrious and turgid Dead C double CD.” It’s no wonder why Lax was skeptical; a double-CD holding almost 130 minutes of music, one track alone clocking out at 33 minutes, the entire thing not only having zero vocals, but hardly any Michael Morley guitar riffs or Robbie Yeats backbeats either. Again, no rock tendencies whatsoever. And it wasn’t just Lax; this is pretty much where I got off the bus too. I was intrigued by it, but I wasn’t in love with it, and of all the records that have come out since — New Electric Music, The Damned, Future Artists, Secret Earth, Patience, Armed Courage, Trouble, Rare Ravers, Unknowns — I’ve only really heard a couple. I got kind of excited again in 2008 when Secret Earth came out, which I heard and liked, Morley doing some pretty good singing, the guitars sounding good and just a little more rockist again. It had a cool cover photo, and I vaguely remember owning it on vinyl even though I can’t find it anywhere in the stacks now. I even caught them live in 2008 and there were times when I felt like I could imagine it was still 1995, and it was going to be 1995 forever, but I can’t lie, the playing really didn’t rise above perfunctory for me. They were doing what the Dead C was supposed to do, Morley playing perfunctory crumbling broken chords, Russell playing perfunctory broken noise, and Yeats maybe seeming a little bored behind the kit, starting various perfunctory backbeats, playing them for awhile, and then stopping and waiting for a bit, repeating as necessary, which it apparently was for about an hour. Repent it was not, but I still thought it was pretty good. I dunno, you can listen to the whole show (and LOTS of other Dead C stuff) for yourself here (10/19/08, Empty Bottle, Chicago) and tell me what you think (shout-out to Otto Maddox). And believe me, I know there are non-perfunctory moments on that long list of 21st Century Dead C albums I shared above, and I hope I find them all. But, looking at the self-titled double-CD now, 21 years after its release, it does seem like it just might be the last time they were truly adventurous. Adventurous as in: taking three years to studiously record and re-record, finding out what kind of music, and how much it, they can create and sustain without using voice or drums at all. Finding out what happens if they try to do it for 33 minutes without stopping, finding out how a track like that would sit on a CD release, or perhaps even a double CD release, investigations that eventually lead to the bold release of 130 minutes of anti-music that is indeed turgid and lugubrious. Tom Lax was not wrong! It’s just that he didn’t like it, and I do like it. I like the turgidity. I like the lugubriousness. It took me quite a few listens, but something about it made me keep listening, on and (mostly) off for over twenty years. I’m listening to it right now in fact, some track from somewhere in the middle of the second disc humming and buzzing away, and the phrase “clouds of nothing” pops into my head to describe it. I chuckle at my phrase, because it is pretty accurate, even in a somewhat empirical sense, but it could also be a dis. I pull out the case to see what the track is actually titled, and even more humorously, it’s called “Fake Electronics.” Also kinda derisive! I leave the room for a bit, and when I come back they’re 10 minutes into another track that also sounded very much like “clouds of nothing,” this one called “Drillbit.” Again, I like all these “nothing” tracks quite a bit, and I’ve finally decided this is a great album. And yet, “clouds of nothing” very often applies, kinda like Eno’s “as interesting as it is ignorable” designation.
EUGENE CHADBOURNE Country Music in the World of Islam Volume XV CDR (HOUSE OF CHADULA) An album released on vinyl in 1989, this being an official 2001 CDR reissue, burned and scrawled on with sharpie and barely packaged (foldover cardstock ‘envelope’ kinda thing) by Eugene himself, and it’s one of my favorite things he ever did, quite likely because his backing band for the record was the Sun City Girls themselves, maybe even from the same vintage late-‘80s Arizona-based sessions all of us way-too-deep heads caught a glimpse of while watching the Kill Him VHS release on Placebo Records from 1987. So many unforgettable Chadbourne hooks throughout this classic, like when he’s singing “big John loved his Dick” about Haldeman and Nixon, and when he’s singing about “the perfume of the desert” to tell a topical tale of resource-war intrigue in Iraq that also sets that expansive SCG/AZ Sonoran Desert mood, and when he’s singing “who are the ones who had all the ideas/and someone else made off with your money” about certain intellectual property injustices, and when he’s singing “hippies and cops/both always lookin’ for drugs” which is self-explanatory, and when he’s singing a Gram Parsons cover in “Luxury Liner,” and how about when he’s singing “every day I count my blessings/that I’m not you” which is a genius putdown-song original by Chadbourne, and after all those examples I’m still only on track four (another weird thing about this LP is that each track consists of two separate songs played live in the studio, segued together psych-improv medley-style). This CDR reissue also includes a good 20-30 minutes of material that didn’t fit on the LP, including a final track #8 called “Imitation of Astral Travelling” that is essentially a trademark super blown-out Sun City Girls long-form improvised noise-stretch guitar jam with Chadbourne sitting in. Even when, 8 minutes in, Eugene starts to sing an “Xmass Song” all goofy and Chadbourne-like, SCG hold their ground and keep it extremely dark and focused, and though they do comment on his vocal somewhat, with sharp evil instrumental precision, they never choose the more goofy/sloppy route. Chadbourne is holding that particular door wide open for them, but not once do they accept the offer.
THE PERFECT ME The Very Best of the Perfect Me CD (THE END IS HERE) One of my favorites from the “lost 2000s” category. CD only, released in 2002, has apparently never sold on Discogs, and yet I have one here in my hands, in its original flawless transparent CD jewel case. It says in the liner notes that The Perfect Me is a “project organized by Marnie Weber.” I think that means it’s her band! (You might know her as the cover artist for Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves.) Although the quite male voice of her husband Jim Shaw (of the original Destroy All Monsters lineup) is the lead vocalist on a few songs, and that might be him on the front cover (dressed as a woman, no less), they don’t seem like a traditional band that has guitar, drums, bass, and a frontperson, the appearance of the latter at best incidental. Mostly these tracks are synthetic soundscapes, created by off-kilter drum machines or maybe just crude samples from records, overlaid with some synthetic keyboards, maybe some other low-budget little instruments, and then sometimes weird art-pop lead vocals. It’s just a lovely little weird indie pop LP at heart, except that it has more strange interludes and all-instrumental experiments than it does songs.