grant lee buffalo, “mighty joe moon”

Grant Lee Buffalo, Mighty Joe Moon (CD, 1996)

This is one of the oldest CDs that I own; I would have bought it when I was in high school, almost certainly used, because that was how I acquired music from bands I wasn’t sure about then; probably from a newer store on East State Street in Rockford that only sold used CDs – that a store like that could be a business! – probably already with too many copies of Last Splash, soon to be getting a lot of copies of Monster.

Chronologically, I would have bought this in high school, but I mostly remember spending a lot of time listening to this (and the previous GLB album, subsequently acquired) during my first year or so in college. Certain albums you knew well enough to know every word; this is one, though relistening it turns out that I’ve forgotten most of them. Overuse, and to the service of an end that I find myself questioning now; but that requires exploring how music functioned in high school at the time.

I attended a small public high school in the rural Midwest which was then fighting off becoming a suburb of a mid-sized formerly industrial city with a strangely lasting segregation problem. The high school I attended was almost entirely white. We were not racist: that was a problem that they had down south. How could we be racist if there weren’t any (barely) minorities to be racist against? Why there were so many black people twenty miles away and none here was never really discussed; it was only after I left that I grasped how strange the situation was.

And this sort of attitude filtered down into music. Three paths were available, based in no small part on the radio: pop, country, classic rock. (A fourth was conspicuous by how innocuous it was: the hardcore fundamentalists took themselves out of the mix by listening to the Christian stations, which everyone acknowledged, at that point in time, as lame.) Country was for hicks; at the time I didn’t recognize the economic underpinning of that grouping, though it was certainly there; it was “trashy”. Hip hop and R&B, during the time I was in high school, weren’t something that white males listened to: there was the idea that you were trying to be something you obviously weren’t. Anything electronic – pop included – was seen as touched by the possibility of queerness; the disco bonfire at Comiskey Field wasn’t that far off, either in space or time. And so we had classic rock, which was white, male, and unquestionably straight. It was an aggressively dumb genre; there’s not a lot of poetry in that canon, or at least the part of that canon that we heard. Were I from a background somewhat more sophisticated, it might have been an easy jump to Bob Dylan or the Beatles; but culturally, I didn’t really have any context for how to appreciate them.

And so I would find something like this CD, which wasn’t an enormous jump from what I had heard, but which did present other things that were interesting but that I didn’t know how to get to: the Harry Smith folk tradition, the paisley underground bands, toned-down glam. Hard rock guitars on the opening track protect against the dangerously fey possibilities of folk. The mixture waters it down, maybe too much. A more informed critic would have seen this as clearly derivative; I didn’t see that, of course.

It was primarily the sense of Americana that comes through this record that I was reacting to: the idea that there was something in the society around me that might be interesting, that there was an old, weird America under the surface. The idea that there might be something valuable underneath the empty culture I grew up in was a little astonishing to me (and still is); it didn’t matter much that it was ersatz (this was a California band, after all). And part of my attraction to this, I think, had to do with the realization – and this would have come later, after I’d arrived at college – that my background was comparatively as boring as could be imagined; there’s not a lot that can be said in your favor if you’re white, male, and from the Midwest. So the idea that something could be reclaimed from that was attractive. That’s not particularly fair to this album, but that’s where I was coming from when I was listening to it, and that’s what I heard here.

Most of the critics at the time that I could find seemed to think this particular record was a slightly warmed-over rehash of the band’s previous one, which might be true, though I never liked that record quite as much, and consequently worried about my critical faculties. The record they released after this one wasn’t as good either, as much as I wanted it to be, and I can barely remember the band’s fourth album, though I would have had that one too. The other albums seem to have disappeared from my possession; when and how, I do not know. All but the third – rectified somewhat by the inclusion of a greatest hits and b-sides collection that I never had – are conveniently on Spotify. Grant Lee Phillips, the lead singer of the band, seems to have had a reasonably successful solo career, with a whiff of tasteful adult-oriented alternative. The sound makes more sense now than it did in the Clinton era, though this band always seemed aimed at an audience slightly more mature than myself. Even at the time, I think, I recognized this as something of a problem, but I never quite resolved it.

Marcel Duchamp had a concept of aura that was different from the better known version promulgated by Walter Benjamin: Duchamp claimed that works of art lost their power after a certain amount of time. It’s hard, of course, to know how seriously Duchamp meant this, but it’s a useful idea for thinking about what’s happened between this record and me. Maybe it’s what happens to all albums for me, given enough time: the power eventually loses hold.

the fall, “i am kurious oranj”

The Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj (CD, 1988)

I Am Kurious, OranjI don’t actually remember when I started buying records by The Fall. This one I think I would have bought in 1999, because I remember listening to it that summer in Rome; I suspect it’s fairly early in the chronicle of Fall albums that I would have bought. First was probably The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, which was easily available but didn’t do very much for me aside from “No Bulbs” and “Disney’s Dream Debased”; then there would have been Hex Enduction Hour, which was basically too much for me, except for “The Classical”. Obviously what I should have done is to admit that I liked The Fall’s poppy singles and bought the singles collection, but I didn’t for some reason; whether that was because it was only available as an import and thus more expensive or because of the belief that albums were what mattered, I don’t know. Nonetheless, I persisted in buying records by The Fall, and finally got to this one, which I did end up liking, even though popular opinion has it as terrible.

Looking at the CD more carefully, it seems to be a British edition; it’s possible I bought it in Rome, at the little record shop on via dei Mille which can’t possibly still exist. That was the summer that in retrospect I seem to have been trying to be as awful as possible to the people around me as I could possibly be; it’s something of a miracle that most of those people are still friends. I’d arrived with my well-worn copy of The Recognitions, the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville’s Clarel and a CD-ROM of the Joy Division box set, all of which obviously spelled out trouble. I convinced myself that I was having a sustained aesthetic crisis; I didn’t finish Clarel, predictably enough; I bought a preposterous number of CDs and listened to them on the tinny speakers of the ungainly PC laptops that we’d been given to edit our travel guide on. This was probably one of them: the booklet shows the circular imprint of a CD from being transported in a binder. How it subsequently acquired a jewel case, I don’t know.

This is ostensibly the score to a Michael Clark ballet about William of Orange. I don’t know anything about the ballet past the sleeve notes, which don’t really say very much, though something of a plot might be discerned if one paid close attention to the lyrics. It’s from the Brix Smith years of The Fall, which I generally like, though maybe I like the immediately post-Brix years most of all. Critical consensus seemed to be that this period, and particularly this album, was a disaster, though who knows what that even means. But I liked this record then, and I generally like it now, though it’s been a very long time since I’ve listened to it. For a while, “Cab It Up!” would play in my head whenever taking a taxi uptown. Looking at the tracklisting, I can remember how most of the songs go, which is something. Two versions of “Hip Priest” from Hex Enduction Hour bookend the album; maybe that was the big single for this album. It’s what between them – generally less stomping – that I really like. “Overture from ‘I Am Curious, Orange’,” which is credited to Brix and is mostly instrumental, is what I remember to listening most. It doesn’t sound very much like The Fall: it’s too clean, and what lyrics there are are mostly Brix reciting song titles or refrains from older songs by The Fall; it feels like it’s about the consumption of rock music, maybe in a teenage way, rather than rock music itself, and I like that. Then “Dog Is Life/Jerusalem,” which starts with Mark E. Smith angrily ranting about dogs, which turns into a blistering version of William Blake, which then gets lost when explanations of how “it was the fault of the government / it was the government’s fault” are added in between refrains of “Jerusalem”. There’s a lot of slightly modified repetition on this album and I like that. The beat is krautrocky; the song could go on for an hour and I’d be happy.

“Kurious Oranj” is a list song about the supposed accomplishments of William of Orange’s men: “they built the world as you know it / all the systems you traverse”. I remember once seizing upon a couplet in this track as being especially meaningful, but then I realized I was mishearing it; I don’t remember what it was. William or Orange is presented admirably ambiguously: responsible for basically everything both good and bad in British history; he stands unmovable and Smith grapples with him. “C.D. Win Fall 2088 AD” gives “Hip Priest” a house beat and presents the future; “Van Plague?” is maybe the center of the album, trying to connect AIDS (never mentioned by name) with the history of British imperialism and transatlantic trade; heard now, it’s still affecting, reminding me now of Delany’s Flight from Nevèrÿon. And then “Bad News Girl” (the halting refrain “heart – stop – girl” I always liked) and “Cab It Up!” which I’ve already mentioned. Maybe this album is a little too long; but repeated refrains keep hiccuping out of the background, and it all feels of a piece. There’s a clear focus to this album – British history – but nailing down exactly what Mark E. Smith’s feelings toward it might be is tricky.

Somehow I didn’t hear “Leave the Capitol” with it’s refrain of “exit this Roman shell” until years after I’d left Rome; mentally, it fits with this. I don’t know that this is an album that I can tie down to a particular place and time, though; it stayed in rotation for a while. When I moved to New York I broke my own rule and bought a live Fall album, an import even, a beautiful orange disc called “I Am Pure as Oranj”; I think I listened to that once. Probably it’s around somewhere.

scott walker, “it’s raining today: the scott walker story (1967–70)”

Scott Walker, It’s Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967–70) (CD, 1996)

For a long time, it wasn’t clear to me that my consumption of music wasn’t always so much about music but about context. One way this manifested itself was rigor: trying to convince myself that I liked something more than I did because there was some reason that I should like it, because it fit into some received idea about authenticity or because I’d mentally aligned myself with the artist or label. Sometimes this paid off, of course; mostly this was a waste of time. A related version of this response was to respond not so much to the music as to the narrative around it. This happens all the time, of course; it’s the goal of marketing, and one quickly becomes desensitized to it in the purest form. But occasionally one finds oneself caught up in the narrative around an artist: the allure of Pynchon was that he was never photographed. That doesn’t explain his books, which finally have to stand on their own merits. When one’s young, though, one imagines that there are hidden truths everywhere that everyone else is too stupid to notice.

It feels odd to talk about Scott Walker now: it’s hard to argue that he’s particularly obscure. His records are in print; there have been a couple of books; there was a terrible documentary and a largely unnecessary covers record. He’s readily available on CD, vinyl, and MP3, and you can go on Spotify and hear hours of obscure early tracks. One now has to argue that his bad records were actually the good records to get attention. But there’s still a shape to his narrative that’s appealing: a guy releases a series of perfect pop records, loses his way terribly, then returns, strange and inscrutable, further out than anyone. It’s an attractive story: genius going unnoticed, a fall, redemption. There’s the pleasant puzzle of trying to reconcile the old records with the new ones. It’s something that worked on me: I think I have two copies of most of the major records, generally because I was somewhere where the media wasn’t and the music seemed necessary. I don’t know where most of them are at this point; I don’t have most of them in my iTunes as MP3s, though I’m sure I could find them if they seemed necessary.

This CD, which Razor & Tie put out in 1996, is a compilation of tracks from the first five Scott Walker albums, plus I think a couple of singles. There was probably a window where this CD was the easiest way to find Scott Walker’s early work in the United States. I’m fairly certain that this was not actually the case when I bought this CD, probably in 1999; but it’s possible that this was the first or second album by him that I bought, the other being Tilt. Soon after I bought this, I would have gone off and bought Scotts 1–4 and ‘Til the Band Comes In. This CD was mostly extraneous even then; the back of the booklet helpfully shows the covers of the first four Scott albums, which are better than this. The selection here is more interesting than it might have been: it mostly avoids the Jacques Brel covers (though “Jackie” and “Next” are here), and there are a handful of tracks from the first half of ‘Til the Band Comes In. There are liner notes by Marshall Crenshaw; I don’t remember who he is, but I associate him with tasteful NPR music; the content’s about what you’d expect.

The Photoshop-filtered cover and questionable font choices make this an embarrassing CD to display. There’s no edge here, which would have mattered to me at the time: it’s in the lyrics, though it’s not in the music that accompanies them. Tilt unquestionably had edge, as did Climate of Hunter; those were the Scott Walker records I liked best, and probably the ones I played the most. There’s something attractive about the ruined squalor of ‘Til the Band Comes In; and the first four albums I could (and still can, mostly) appreciate for the sustained mood. Here, however, the listener is being asked to appreciate these tracks on a song-by-song basis; and that doesn’t work particularly well for me. Probably I would have spent a lot of time playing “The Seventh Seal” – the shear novelty value of a pop song from the 1960s about Ingmar Bergman. But in the 1990s, I was more interested in albums than in songs. At that point in time, you could make a mix-CD, but it would have taken most of an evening; too much work.

It’s odd, actually, how little the selection on this compilation corresponds with the parts of the early Scott Walker that I like. I might not be alone: there’s a slightly later compilation, Boy Child: 67–70, which covers the same period in twenty tracks; only seven coincide with the seventeen on It’s Raining Today. Were I to do something similar, I’d keep at most six of the seventeen tracks on It’s Raining Today. Generally I like 3 and 4 better than 1 and 2. I think it’s that the more atmospheric and stripped-down songs (“Boy Child”, “30 Century Man”) do more for me than the more grandiose pop; “Farmer in the City” is probably the Walker track I’ve listened to the most times, and Climate of Hunter the album. I haven’t talked about his voice, maybe the absent center in the way I think about Scott Walker. It’s much more the sound of it than what he’s actually saying; it’s a voice that sounds good singing almost anything. The lyrics might have been an entry-point: there was some edge there. I listen to lyrics less than I once did – when I bought this I would have been listening almost exclusively to English-language music. There are word choices here that slightly rankle, but I don’t dislike them. But pure sound is what matters.

This CD isn’t presenting my Scott Walker, though it seemed to be pointing at better things. The way I read the narrative of Scott Walker then was as an artist who’d learned some great secret; maybe by listening to the old songs again and again, I could figure it out. I don’t think that’s true any more, but I still like some of the songs.