Stuck in my head this morning, unfortunately: the fragmentary bits of NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta” I can remember. I think that’s because I spent part of yesterday reading Bellen!, and I’ve always wondered what the hell Dre is rhyming with “yellin” in the bridge in that song. Straight Outta Compton is still a favorite of mine, but some of the songs are not the kinds of things you want chasing themselves around your brain, you know?
Stuck in my head this morning, after a long spell of waking up with a head cluttered with thoughts of moving or cleaning or unpacking or working: “Vampira” from Synchestra by The Devin Townsend Band. I had a little Devin Townsend festival last week while I was finishing up the onerous process of packing up and cleaning my old apartment, from which I was moving after 13 years of continuous occupation. It was a lot of work, but now all 5,500+ CDs and 3,000+ books have been relocated to my new place, where I will spend the next 30 years gradually unpacking them all.
Listening to random Belgian musique concrete will only get you so far when there’s serious scrubbing to be done; sometimes I need to bust out something with little jabs of adrenaline to it, and in those situations, Townsend is my man. His twitchy, neurotic attention to detail and unparalleled command of the vocabulary of extreme metal and 80s cheese balladry are a dynamite combination when there is work to be done. His songs are cascading floods of melody and hooks and sparkly bits of cleverness that catch the ear and engage the brain: cf. ref “Vampira” popping up unbidden, over a week after I last heard it (and with much music in between).
Townsend is one of the most unregulated forces in music, a twitchy, prolific, undaunted, Canadian heavy metal version of Kevin Shields (who, it must be said, has now dragged My Bloody Valentine out of the wilderness; I have tickets to this fall’s show in San Francisco, and am feeling an uneasy mixture of nostalgia, fascination and dread about the whole thing); he seems to constantly be bouncing between furious gouts of precise, perfectionist activity and exhausted burnout. After the first two Strapping Young Lad albums (which are among the best heavy metal albums ever made) and his astounding, magnificent, endlessly creative first few solo albums (in particular Infinity, which I consider a genuine work of sui generis heavy metal genius) he had an actual nervous breakdown, in the wake of which he briefly institutionalized himself. That impulse to ride the ragged edge of ability and endurance clearly manifests itself in his work: I’m listening Physicist right now, and it is an album that lives on the redline, occupying some impossible hyperspace between Ministry, Def Leppard (there’s more than a little Mutt Lange in Townsend’s production style) and the Neverending Story soundtrack. It is cartoonishly, freakishly oversized in its ambition, and I absolutely love it, as I (very obviously) love all of Townsend’s work.
Townsend’s recently calmed down a lot: he and his wife Tracy have a kid, and a lot of the mania that drove him has abated over the years (or has been brought under control through meds and therapy – his intensity was pretty obviously eating him alive). He shut down Strapping Young Lad, feeling that he’d pretty much done everything he could with that style of aggressively obnoxious songwriting, and he’s cut loose the rest of the Devin Townsend band for now. That said, his first proper solo album from a year or two ago, Ziltoid the Omniscient, is a completely deranged pulp sf puppet-show prog rock opera about the importance of good coffee, and it is both totally bonkers and deeply engaged in a discourse with his previous work, with melodies and lyrical snippets liberally quoted from his old work.
I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to scale back Devin’s ambitions without killing him, but I’m also pretty sure that I like his ambitions just fine the way they are. He fits in the line of irrepressible geniuses in rock, like Frank Zappa and his old mentor Steve Vai, who just need to be left alone to do their own thing. I hope he keeps doing his thing for a long time.
Stuck in my head this morning, last night, and most of today: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Genetic Engineering” (off their largely unheralded 1983 Cold War concept album Dazzle Ships). A bouncier bit of toy-piano / Read’n’Spell fluff I cannot imagine. “Genetic Engineering” exhibits that puzzling tendency manifested in early 80s pop where the music is upbeat and full of cheer while the lyrics are fathomlessly cynical (think Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing” with its cartoonishly frenetic bass fretwork and sneering disdain for Ronald Reagan). This song has one of those 4-note arpeggiated major-chord melodies that jackhammers itself inextricably into your skull. Back when I used to do a lot of long-distance cycling, I’d get this exact kind of song stuck in my head during long slogs, and would want to never, ever hear them ever again by the time I finished the ride. Under less extreme conditions, though, it’s a super-fun companion to have for a day or two, and a useful counteractive to the bleak and dour stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
For indie rockers with very long memories, one of the only covers of this song was released by Washington, DC’s Eggs on a TeenBeat 7” in 1995. It’s faithful but sort of ramshackle and unravelled, but that was what Eggs were about in the first place, so it’s endearing, if nowhere near as charming as the original.
Stuck in my head this morning: Mozart’s “Sonata in C Major” K545, as played by an Apple //c. I even found myself whistling bits of it in the shower. How dorky is that?
It’s a huge improvement over last night, though, when I had Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” looping its way through my noggin. The studio version is basically old Tangerine Dream with Genesis P-Orridge mumbling vaguely over the top; live, it turns into a truly disturbing portrait of trauma and pathology. Latecomers to Throbbing Gristle can be forgiven for thinking they were kind of tame or overrated, because on record they’re basically just a strangely diverse synth-driven noise unit. Live, though, everything take a back seat to Genesis’s insistently chanted / shrieked / growled vocals, and the darkness at the heart of the project becomes manifest. “ASSUME POWER FOCUS” live is a totally different animal. They remain strangely diverse.
Stuck in my head this morning: a vague montage of material from Michael O’Shea’s self-titled solo album on WMO, chopped and reconfigured by my dreaming mind to sound vaguely Chinese. I was dreaming about the NPR affiliate in Portland changing to broadcast all in Chinese, and my mom tuning all the radios in the house to it, you see. Which is weird inasmuch as O’Shea played mostly traditional Celtic folk drones, albeit on an instrument of his own devising (one that sounds like a hammer dulcimer with a built-in flange pedal).
O’Shea’s music sounds like a cross between John Fahey and Roy Montgomery, which is my way of saying it’s great and weird, and I’d like to find more material by him. Too bad for me! The only other record he released is a desperately out of print LP from 1982, all of which is included on the WMO release. Also, the WMO release itself is completely out of print (as are most things on WMO, the private label of Wire’s fan club). I heard this in the first place via Mutant Sounds. You can too, if you like.
Stuck in my head this morning: “Metal Dance” by SPK. Or, as the incredibly pretentious woman who sang it says, “Metahhl Dahhhhhnsz!” SPK is a perfect example of a group whose quality and credibility went straight off a cliff very early in their career (in fact, SPK neatly recapitulates the entire evolution of industrial from transgressive noise into po-faced clanky dance-industrial into Middle-Eastern tinged coldwave into Delerium-style synth cheez in one tidy package), and songs like “Metal Dance” are why. So cheesy! Yet so pretentious!
It’s hard to believe this is the same band that recorded “Slogun”, one of the noisiest, meanest songs recorded in the entire industrial era. Of course, the later songs are catchy, too, hence waking up with this stuck in my head.
Stuck in my head this morning: “Carpe Diem” by The Fugs, from their Second Album. By the standards of The Fugs, this song is eminently gentle, being a delicate meditation upon the certainty of death and the need to do something with yourself now rather than later.
I stress its gentleness because The Fugs are one of the filthiest, most scabrous, and straight-up entertaining bands of the 1960s. Their unhinged hooliganism, coming from a bunch of Jewish East Village Beatnik libertines, is as fresh – and startling – today as it was when their records were first released, over 40 years ago. Songs about mutants with 9-headed penises porking watermelons and farmers having hard times raising them hemp plants and poppy flowers are the rule of the day on Second Album, and there’s a sharp, wild-eyed sensibility to The Fugs that got badly diluted by the time the hippie explosion made it to San Francisco. Everybody name-checks the Fugs, and it’s pretty obvious why. Highly recommended, especially to fans of the Velvet Underground or Tom Lehrer (I bet you don’t see those two put together very often, do you?).
Stuck in my head this morning: …I really don’t want to say. It’s embarrassing.
No, seriously. I’ve been bitching about these guys for years!
Oh, all right. I had uh Step On by Happy Mondays playing in a relentless, remorseless, jackhammer loop when I woke up this morning. MAN did those guys suck, but I guess that song had sorta a catchy guitar line.
Anyway, I did not wake up in a great mood.
But seriously, man, fuck Shaun Ryder. Just fuck that guy. His voice makes baby Jesus want to die.
Stuck in my head this morning: nothing. I’m not sure whether it’s because my sleeping patterns have been sort of strange lately, or because I’ve been listening to such a large volume of new and unfamiliar music, or if that same music’s relative lack of tonality or tunefulness makes it less earwormy, but I’ve been waking up without music in my head for the last month or so. It’s weird, and it means the day feels unstarted until I put some music on. But I’ve been spending a lot of time concentrating on work lately, and have also found myself in an unusual (for me) mental space where I need quiet to figure out the things I’m working on. It feels oddly grown up, and not in a good way.
Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows does not do what it says on the box. The band and album names suggest some kind of kohl-eyed coldwave from the late 80s, not an amalgam of the Grateful Dead, Pavement and Built to Spill, full of sinuous, meandering guitar lines and aggressively Aquarian lyrics drawn from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It was apparently recorded in 1969 but not released until 1989, and even then on a tiny little label. It’s not precisely an overlooked gem, because it’s definitely a creature of its moment, with the stilted vocal delivery (which really does seem like an awkward hybrid of Jerry Garcia and Stephen Malkmus’s styles) and the somewhat overfamiliar psychedelic doodles draped all over the songs, but there’s something about its aggressive oddity and potentially laughable earnestness that got it deeply enough wedged in my head that I woke up this morning humming it.
And you can check it out for free, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, you should check it out.