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.

autechre, “confield”

Autechre, Confield (CD, 2001)

An unfortunate consequence of lack of faith is that it’s impossible to experience loss of faith. Valuing the loss of faith is, of course, libertine reasoning, emphasizing the value of belief in negative, but it is how I was thinking at a certain point in time. One doesn’t value faith as much when one has it; but one can’t really appreciate that until it’s gone and you’re outside of that perspective. It’s a tricky thing.

It’s hard to remember now how devoted I was to Autechre in 2001: as much of a completist about them as I was about any band, I had bought several of their CDs twice over, generally a expensive imports, as it seemed impossible that I could be living somewhere with a copy of Amber or Envane. Things like Napster existed in 2001, of course; but they were generally low-bitrate single track affairs, and over an Italian dialup connection it seemed like it took forever. And Autechre were as important to me as any band – the word is wrong, but “group” also has problems. I remember stumbling out of the Let’s Go office at dawn, or what seemed like dawn, to pick up the embargoed import version of LP5 the morning the guys at Tower Records said it would be available; I remember playing the second half of EP7 over and over again on headphones my first summer in Rome. Confield was the first full-length to be released after that.

Autechre hit that solipsistic sweet spot of being abstract but emotional at the same time; it was headphone music. There are all the affordances of dance music, but without the troublesome element of other people. This went all the way through: track titles were computerese, some sort of remixed English, and the graphics were abstract (or, with Amber, too perfect to seem real). The sound then was unrecognizable: it didn’t sound like anything. Now it sounds like plenty of other things; it sounds like synthesizers and drum machines, like dance music, if the dance music wasn’t particularly good at being dance-y and dignified that approach by saying it just wasn’t interested in dancing. Maybe it’s the sense of pure abstraction: there weren’t lyrics, and interviews with the two fellows behind the music didn’t really provide anything. The song titles are signifiers, though there’s not very much that can be read from them beside a love of technological obfuscation. Without sounds from recognizable instruments (for the most part) or much sense of how it might be made, the listener could hang anything he – it’s almost always a “he” – wanted on the music.

There have been a number of Autechre albums since then; I know I bought at least the next two, and maybe the third, though that looks less familiar. Another one just came out, and I dutifully listened to it, though I didn’t love it. The bloom came off the rose with Confield: I was disappointed with this record and never quite managed to get my enthusiasm back. Part of this was how important LP5 and EP7 had been: expectations build. There’s also the problem, of course, of what I wanted from the musicians: both to stay the same and yet to do something new, which isn’t really a nice place to put someone. Files calling themselves Confield had been floating around before the album was actually released; I dutifully downloaded them and liked them before finding out that they were fake: to the trash they went. After the actual album came out, I noticed that I’d liked the fake better than the real; that fake version seems to have vanished into the Internet, though I assume it’s still around somewhere.

Listening to it now, I wonder how many times I actually listened to this album. I expect that I listened to it over and over again on first getting, hoping that something would click and that I’d like it: that was something one did when there was an actual investment of capital in a record, when you had to justify why you’d spent L39,000 – is that number, the one I remember, really what I was paying for CDs then? – to find something worthwhile in that expenditure: music-buying was a strange thing. But I wonder if I ever pulled this CD out after 2001; it’s entirely possible that it’s sat in the CD-case in which I brought it from Rome since then. I can’t think of what would have impelled me to pull it out. Some of the sounds are nice (the first half of “Pen Expers,” for example, the metalic clanging in “Parhelic Triangle” that’s almost chiming), but the the rhythms remain arbitrary (the second half of “Pen Expers”) and don’t seem to justify their arbitrariness to my ears; there’s not a lot of melody, and one wonders whether the rhythms are entirely random. Nor is there much sense of drama, though there’s a hint of that in “Eidetic Cassein.” My taste in electronic music after 2001 tended towards the more regularly rhythmic: techno and house rather than this. I’d probably like more straightforward remixes of this, but I don’t know that anyone ever really bothered. A beatless version of this record might be very nice.

It’s interesting looking at dates now to realize how compressed the timeframe of my love of Autechre was: I would have bought my first record by them in 1996, and the romance would end in 2001, about five years. It seems much longer: maybe a lot was happening then. Up until this, there’d been something thrilling about the strangeness of each release: Autechre records didn’t sound like anything else. This one sounds like an Autechre record: but an Autechre record where they’re trying to be vexatious by not providing melodies. It’s a noisy record, like all Autechre records; but it’s not quite regimented noise, like the previous ones: rather, it seems to be noises for their own sake, rather than for any purpose. It’s hard to know what this record is for: it’s not something that can be casually listened to, as the unhinged rhythms keep jumping out, but it’s not quite danceable. Most of the tracks last six minutes when they would have been better left at two. Maybe it’s the problem of where the scene was then; even then, they had plenty of followers: I remember Funkstörung, but there must have been plenty of others. Aphex Twin had stopped being interesting by this point; the clicks & cuts aesthetic of Mille Plateaux and the rest of the Germans was clearly artier. With the Internet, it became very easy to find really strange things – this might be one of the dominant aesthetics of the past ten years – and the familiarly strange is left being just familiar.

Autechre played in the Brancaleone centro sociale some time near the end of the summer of 2001: I remember thinking that I really should go, as I’d never seen them live & they were supposed to be amazing. I didn’t end up going, being too disappointed in this album. Also, it’s worth noting, laptop shows at that point in time were by and large terrible. I am disappointed with myself for not going: probably Brancaleone itself would have been more interesting than the show. But the idea of waiting around with a bunch of other Autechre fans for something that we all enjoyed in solitude: that seemed like it might be going too far.

stereolab, “transient random-noise bursts with announcements”

Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (CD, 1993)

This CD, which arrived in the package that M. sent me a couple months back, is one of the oldest that I still have: I bought this in high school. It was, I’m fairly certain, used: CD prices then were exorbitantly high for high school students. I’m not sure when I would have bought it: summer 1994, maybe. I’m not sure where I would have bought it: probably a used CD store in Rockford? I remember bits of this (“Crest”) going through my head when I was working as a banquet server/busboy, which would have been my senior year of high school. This was probably the first Stereolab CD I bought – there’s the off chance that I bought Mars Audiac Quintet, from 1994, first, though I didn’t like that one as much as this one & sold it at some point. (Later I reconsidered this; I think I may have bought Mars Audiac Quintet three separate times, but I don’t remember what would have happened to make that be the case; in any case, I don’t think that I still have a copy.) Mars Audiac Quintet would have been in Spin or The Onion or whatever I was reading then to get ideas about music, but I liked Transient Random-Noise Bursts enough that I never sold it.

Stereolab’s been around for so long now – this CD is almost old enough to buy cigarettes! – that it’s hard to remember how strange they seemed at first: the constructivist red and yellow gear on the CD, the back cover text that seemed like it was from some weird hi-fi 1950s, the “æ” in Laetitia Sadier’s name, the tagline “Art is a science having more than seven variables,” ready for scribbling on desks. The front-cover graphic, a stylus on a record, abstracted almost to the point of being unrecognizable: certainly at that point I wasn’t attuned to design, but I knew that this didn’t look like anything else I was used to seeing. The booklet was also puzzling: photographs of electrical machinery that looked like it was from the 1950s with what look like JPEG-style graininess before the fact, and sample credits to people I’d never heard of but who would quickly become hipster touchstones.

The sound of this when you listen to it is still strange: from the start, there’s a lo-fi fuzz to it. Then repetition: later Neu! and Kraftwerk, but at that point the krautrock tradition was entirely unfamiliar. Music with synthesizers was frowned upon as being frivolous: there were guitars and bass here, which fit into what we understood as indie, but this was something different: there was pop here, in “Pack Yr Romantic Mind,” but “yr” was spelled in the Sonic Youth way (derived, maybe, from Wyndham Lewis’s Blast?) which made it safe; a growling guitar bridge suggested that they could tear off into something fierce if they wanted to. And the lyrics: some of them were on the back cover; some of them were in French. Most were, again, repetitious; “Pack Yr Romantic Mind”’s read, in full

The greater is the beauty,
The profounder is the stain,
Significant of the forbidden is transgressed in eroticism.

Now one thinks “oh, Bataille,” but then it was hard to know what to make of that: Sadier’s voice was lovely, the English was choppy, one wondered what their being Marxists meant. There were not any Marxists in rural Illinois. It did sound nice, though. Now I understand why “Pause” is described as “Proust song” (“Retrieve the past / like a prayer / Bringing it back / Into the light”); at the time, this reference, like most of the others (“Ondioline,” “One Note Samba,” Gershon Kingsley, “Farfisa”), was opaque, something that might be tracked down. Wikipedia makes listening to this CD very different.

There’s a brutal drive to many of the songs on this album (the ends of “Golden Ball” and “Analogue Rock,” the entirety of “Crest”), and I think that’s what I responded to first: there’s an easy appeal to it. And of course the centerpiece of the album, the 18-minute “Jenny Ondioline”: there’s the same drive, the feeling that something could go on and on, which was very strange to someone whose idea of a long song was “Free Bird,” frequently played entire on the local classic rock station. The lyrics of that weren’t printed on the back; partially buried under the wall of sound, you can make out something about not caring if the Fascists have won, socialism still needs to build. It’s political, but the political sense comes as much from the drive of the music as it does from the lyrics. It winds down about seven minutes in, then starts back up again, without vocals, with more guitar. Vocals return: “take heed and lift up the struggle,” but again it’s hard to make out exactly what’s being sung. My politics when I was in high school were nothing if not incoherent, but there was something viscerally appealing about this. So much of my drive during high school was essentially reactionary, concentrating on leaving, being anywhere but where I was: this fit in perfectly. I don’t tend to like long songs, but this could go on forever: it’s that perfect.

For my college interview, I was asked to list three significant books; I put down something by Salinger, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak, at the time, I thought, the only Basque novel, which I found at the public library. In my interview, I talked about that book at length – nobody, of course, wants to hear a 17-year-old describe Salinger. In retrospect, I suspect that book had a lot to do with my getting into college: I’d found something strange, and I’d made it my own. Stereolab – especially this record – fits into the same category: an entryway. After arriving at college, I dutifully tracked down the rest of Atxaga’s work, and bought his new material when it came out; but it never had the same resonance for me.

It’s hard for me to say if I ever loved Stereolab. They were too hard to pin down: you could get what Pavement was about without too much trouble, for example, but Stereolab was a little too exotic, seeming to operate in some other plane entirely. I still like Stereolab, though, and dutifully buy their new records when I come across them; when finally I didn’t buy Sound Dust, I felt decidedly guilty. That was, of course, a mistake.

hüsker dü, “candy apple grey”

Hüsker Dü, Candy Apple Grey (CD, 1986)

huskerducandyapplegreyR. had an extra ticket for Bob Mould last week, so I went and saw him play, at the venue that used to be the Irving Plaza and now has some confusing hyphenated name. I was glad I went, as the show was much better than I expected: Bob looks good, he can still play fast and loud, and his backing band seemed young and excited. His voice is shot, but that’s probably to be expected. But he played a fair amount of his old work, including “Hardly Getting Over It” off this CD, which I certainly hadn’t been expecting. The last time I’d seen him had been a decade ago, in some seated venue in Boston filled with a balding crowd of aging punks; the whole thing was dispiriting, not least when a member of the crowd exhorted us to dance in the aisles to minor effect. The punks have aged further; but this crowd looked better, doubtless because in the time since I saw him last Bob Mould has become a minor gay icon.

I have acquired, as it turns out, a fair number of Bob Mould CDs in his various incarnations, starting with the Sugar CDs which I picked up back in high school and going up to one of the not very good late-90s solo Bob records, sweeping back in time to include most of the Hüsker Dü records. I’m not sure why: there was almost always something good on each of these records, but I’m not sure that I ever really unconditionally loved any of them, save for Sugar’s Beaster, with which I was briefly and unhealthily obsessed. They filled a certain need though: the teen need for angry depressive music; there was enough variation in the quantities to keep things interesting. Listening to Bob again, it was striking how concrete a lyricist he is: he deals in concepts rather than specifics, more pronouns than not, only the most basic of metaphors. It’s easy for the listener to insert himself into his abstractions. More discerning taxonimists of punk called Hüsker Dü “emo”; that word came to mean something embarrassing, but one could draw a connection.

I bought this copy of Candy Apple Grey in Rome in the summer of 1999; I think it was at the used record store on via dei Mille. Google Street View suggests the name was Millerecords, and that it’s still in business, though that’s hard to believe. For part of that summer, I was living in a third-floor apartment a few doors down the street. I have a distinct memory of sitting at the kitchen table of that apartment, listening to this CD on a rented laptop while working on the LG Rome book, on headphones, I expect. I was listening to a lot of punk and post-punk that summer: Joy Division & The Fall. I was being unpleasant.

This is an intentionally depressing record: you can’t get around that. Listening to it, you get the sense that everyone in the band hated each other, which may well have been true, though I don’t know Hüsker Dü history well enough to know whether that’s true or not. This isn’t a record one can pin on any Roman narrative (though that summer some well-meaning graffitist was tagging Trastevere with the Hüsker Dü logo); this is unavoidably a record about young Midwesterners angry at how terrible the world is. It’s a hard record to listen to; I remember playing it over and over that summer, but I don’t know if I’ve played it since. It’s very easy to associate a record with a state of mind; there’s the temptation to blame it on the record, to claim susceptibility. I don’t know if that’s ever actually the case. But it’s an imposing record, from the front cover on in: the stenciled logo; the inscrutable art that suggests something industrial, an oil slick, maybe; the title, which refuses to make sense.

Most of all the sound of it, the sound of three people who aren’t having a nice time. The slow songs are the songs I remember here, songs I played again and again – Mould’s “Hardly Getting Over It,” which seems to be about a child’s apprehension of death, and Grant Hart’s “No Promise Have I Made,” a ballad in form, an angry break-up song in content. (The faster songs aren’t as memorable: the lyrics are equally despairing, but the production is too polished and it feels a bit too much like straight-ahead rock of the ’90s.) There’s a tension between Mould’s lyrics, exhaustive self-scrutiny that occasionally detours into the bathetic – “Grandma, she got sick, she is going to die / And Grandpa had a seizure, moved into a hotel cell and died away / My parents, they just wonder when they both are going to die / And what do I do when they die? ” – and Hart’s comical anger-for-anger’s sake. There are a couple airplane disasters for good measure. It’s a queasy record. I don’t know if it’s a good record.

But it is a powerful record: in my memory it’s an analogue for being unhappy with the world. Why was I unhappy with the world then? That summer I theatrically told people I was having an art crisis, that I wasn’t sure that there was any meaning in any sort of creation; where exactly that excuse came from, I don’t remember, but I did convince myself that was the reason for my unhappiness. Rome means anything you want it to. I was trying, with some success, to drag personal meaning out of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions; this was unfair to the book, I realize now, but it did seem vaguely possible that answers could be hiding somewhere in its apparent opaqueness. When all you have is a hammer, everything seems a nail; from inside this, it’s hard to understand this. A decade later, it’s nice to hear this record, but I don’t believe in it anymore: the sacred power’s drifted away, and it’s just a battered CD. It had its place: that’s something.

autechre, “basscad,ep”

Autechre, Basscad,ep (CD single, 1994)

autechrebasscadepWhen I left Cambridge for Rome, I generally neglected to make any plan for doing anything with those possessions of mine that I couldn’t fit into a suitcase. Some ended up in the Co-op basement; a majority were left in the Cognoscenti office in Winter Hill – as Cognoscenti went under while I was away, I don’t know what happened to those things – and a couple of boxes of books & CDs were left with people who might appreciate them. Some of these things came back, some didn’t; for the most part this was no particular loss. It’s a lot of work having things; or rather, it feels nice to leave them all behind: the idea of starting fresh and escaping one’s past seems increasingly impossible, but at the turn of the century there was still that promise.

So it was a surprise when an email arrived from M. a few weeks back saying that she’d discovered some of my boxes in her parents’ basement and did I want them? Of course I did; and a heavy box promptly arrived here full of books and CDs, a slightly used Christmas where I’d bought most of the presents myself. The books present a snapshot of a certain point in time: Richard Powers, Charles Olson, Melville’s Pierre, Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, a handful of copies of The Baffler: respectable, mostly. I did feel a twinge of disappointment that my signed copy of The Broom of the System is most likely lost forever. There were more CDs: a lot of Scott Walker, a lot of Autechre, some Stereolab, a bunch of inserts for CDRs handwritten in green pen, my Joy Division box set. Looking through these things, I can’t avoid feeling embarrassed for my past self’s pretentiousness – did I foist these things on M.? did she select them? I don’t know.; probably it’s not worth digging into.

This CD was on the top of the pile. It’s a CD single, the first thing I bought by Autechre; this would have been when I was a sophomore in college which was during the brief window when the record companies were putting out very long CD singles. They were cheap; every record store had a rack of them, and they often seemed like a decent risk when it was closing in on midnight at Tower Records, you needed something new, and had very little money. It goes without saying that most were terrible and the magic fell out of them quickly; so there was a lot of consideration of the rack. This one I know I thought about many times before buying: it was cheap and Autechre was associated with Aphex Twin, but it looked imposing. I remember almost being afraid of it: it might be too hard, I thought, though I’m not sure what that would have meant.

This CD still looks good: the cover image is blue and purple droplets on a green background, something like a restrained psychedelic light show, though more oceanic; the image on the reverse uses the same colors with video-like distortion. The text, though, conveys most of the affect: layered, screened out, multi-sized, negative leading. There’s a flagrant disregard for punctuation, connective words, spaces, and vowels; numbers are all over the place; the case of characters changes at random. It’s made to look technical: track numbers are given as “0.01” and “0.02,” while track lengths are listed as “410SECS.” The inlay is clear. It’s dated now, of course: you look at this and immediately think Ray Gun or Designers Republic, early nineties – and this is, of course, a DR sleeve. It’s been done to death since. Fifteen years ago this looked hopelessly exciting: it smacked of “computers” when computers where still something things could smack of. The signifiers of science fiction are there, even if there’s no overt narrative: “basscadet” suggests “space cadet”; space ship displays would use the same monospaced fonts; in the future, everything would seem technical and we would have no time for spaces between words. A few years later computers would be out, but the sensibility filtered down to the masses; everyone was wearing t-shirts with big-eyed aliens on them.

The music is pleasant, if it no longer feels as dark and inhuman as it once did. It feels like techno: things happen regularly, there are occasional breaks, you could almost dance to it. Things build and repeat. There are vocals, but they’re deeply buried and the listener only gets the sense of words. The tracks are recognizably song-like if not songs; Björk could have sung over most of this. The track I remember liking most at the time was the “Beaumonthannanttwomx,” a remix done by one Beaumont Hannant: it feels sparkly, sounds echo back and forth very quickly, and there’s a majestic build. Now this feels like something I’d discount for trying to be emotionally manipulative: it feels too cinematic, though movies didn’t sound like this then. It’s sad and yearning: I can see why a teenager would have liked it. The Seefeel remix still feels claustrophobic in the right way, siren-like loops in a dubby echo chamber, the vocal samples distorted still further. It’s no longer techno, but a little too exciting to be ambient. The “Tazmx” slows down the techno to become something which feels more hip-hop than I would have admitted at the time, washes of strings, some scratches. Trip-hop, I guess. It outstays its welcome. The last mix takes away the beats of the original, stretches everything out, and adds echo, not quite dub but something close.

I decided I liked this & bought a lot of other Autechre CDs; the thrill wore off about the time that they came out with Confield and I realized that I liked the fake tracks that had been floating around the Internet more than the actual album, though I stayed with them for a bit. The whole project started to seem too hermetic: this is, at a very basic level, headphone music, a music about isolation. Now it seems like the music of a teen romantic.

acceleradeck, “narcoticbeats”

Acceleradeck, Narcoticbeats (LP, 1998)

acceleradecknarcoticbeatsIs it wrong for a project to have its clinamen before the rules have even fully been established? I’ve never actually owned a copy of this CD. At some point in the summer of 2000, I acquired a copy of this online in MP3 format; it was one of the two albums on my iBook when I moved to Rome in August of 2000. (The other was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea; I don’t think there were any loose songs.) The iBook, of course, had a tiny hard drive – 6 Gb, maybe? – but I did consciously want to ditch everything and start fresh. The only book I took that was not Rome-related was my copy of Ulysses, I think. Everything else went into storage: with friends; in the Co-op basement; or to be lost in a warehouse somewhere in north Somerville. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physical copy of this CD – or the LP, which has another track – as I probably would have bought it, but my relationship with this record is at least in a sense proprietary. I’m sure this wasn’t the first record that I liked without owning; but this fits in at about the time ownership started to feel incidental.

Was this the last record I knew by heart? No. But it was on the way to that, you could see that coming. This was still a point in time when my relationship with media was defined, at least in part, by scarcity. I listened to this record over and over again because I couldn’t find much else like it. Part of that was defined by the sound: this record sounds like the lost My Bloody Valentine record should have sounded, a weird amalgam of shoegaze wall-of-noise with drum and bass beats. Later this would come to seem pedestrian; at that moment, it didn’t sound like anything else, or at least anything else that I knew. What “that moment” might mean is unclear in retrospect; looking at Discogs, this record came out in 1998, which seems right: was anybody trying to do drum and bass by 2000? Maybe it was a personal moment, though one wanted to feel there was something beyond that. One of the tracks from this ended up on the soundtrack to the Michael Almereyda Hamlet, the one with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, with Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, which I saw in the Pasquino in Trastevere; at a certain point “Greentone” played, and I had a moment of recognition. That soundtrack also had Four Tet (“Calamine”) & Primal Scream (“Slip Inside This House”), both of which I was listening to at about that time, and I felt, briefly, one step ahead of the culture industry. One could feel educated for recognizing the spines of Mayakovsky being used as set decorations. Obviously all of this was ridiculous. I would like to see that movie again, though.

Listening to this record now, I can see why I liked it: it wavers between sad and blissed out, and there’s enough tonal variation to keep things interesting. The drones don’t feel quite as dense as they felt then. Parts of it feel distinctly heavy-handed; what I like best are the parts at the end of the tracks where things feel unsure. The problem is the drumming: a beatless version of this might be very nice, but the later, more ambient tracks, do tend to drag. Some of it feels too cinematic, too overly dramatic. You can see why it would work as a personal soundtrack – I feel like at that point in time I was using a Minidisc player (a purchase made with vague ideas about field recordings) as a Walkman – but you wonder about the sort of person who would choose to use this as a personal soundtrack.

I did end up buying myself a copy of this on vinyl, which comes with a twenty-minute long fourth side, which is more of the same drones-n-drum-n-bass, although not as interesting as I remember hoping it would be when I was fruitlessly looking for this record in record stores. (The impulse to own was still strong: just having a copy of the MP3s wasn’t enough then. It was also true that my hard drive wouldn’t hold more than two hundred songs or so at the time. And it is true that the vinyl is a lovely key lime: it’s hard not to like something so cheerfully colored!) I’m not actually sure that Accelera Deck was, in the end, a particularly interesting artist; the guy put out huge numbers of releases, some of which I dutifully listened to and none of which, aside from this one, the first I heard, ever made any impact on me. (There was also the sense that he was tending a row that had already been thoroughly picked.) Later I think he ended up in the noise scene, which maybe makes sense. Maybe he’s found somebody to appreciate him.

icebreaker, “distant early warning”

Icebreaker, Distant Early Warning (CD, 1999)

icebreakerdistantSomewhere in the eastern periferia of Roma there was – is, it looks like – a club so called because of the single palm tree in front of it. (Google seems to show this palm tree, though it’s hard to be sure from above.) La Palma was at that point in time exciting – maybe it still is, I can’t say – and most of the touring American indie bands playing Rome at that point in time played there. Living in Italy was, predictably enough, the high-water mark of my interest in indie rock. It was 2000; things were confused. This would have been at about the same point in time that I tried learning Italian from a facing-page translation of Finnegans Wake. Bad ideas were everywhere.

I was at La Palma, by my memory, a number of times. Looking at where it is on the Google map, I’m confused by this: how did I get there? I think there was some sort of local train that was not the subway that went there; I have vague memories of a run-down train station in the middle of the night. And I remember getting home by walking – at that point in my life, I didn’t use taxis (this was not a thought-out behavior, it’s just how things were) and the trains didn’t run at three in the morning, so I walked home. Google maps suggests that it would have been just over five miles back to via Plauto, over by the Vatican – was I really walking five hours through the outskirts of Rome at four in the morning, presumably after I’d been drinking? I remember bits of this – passing by the Cimitero Monumentale del Verano, which is enormous and surrounded by little shrines with candles, even in the middle of the night. And Porta Maggiore late at night, with carts selling porchetta and prostitutes – I remember being very tired there, knowing that it was still an enormous distance to anywhere even if I was at the old city limits, and wishing that the subway ran all night. And coming across the Piazza della Repubblica as the sky began to lighten and feeling at home in the city. It seems odd to have been doing that much walking late at night – in terms of distance, it’s roughly akin walking to Central Park from Jackson Heights, which seems somehow inconceivable. Another detail: I wouldn’t have had headphones to keep me entertained while I walked along the highway. That was how I lived then. It’s odd, really.

La Palma was one of the centri sociali, I think, though it was more of hipster than the usual hippy. They’d play Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra before shows – what did it mean for Italians to be listening to that in 2000? I am out of my depth. Hood was playing there & as my postrock dues were paid up – it was during that brief window where one could listen to Godspeed You Black Emperor and not feel enormously depressed about the world – I went to go see them. I don’t remember very much about Hood – they always sounded very nice on paper, but I never really loved them, though maybe I was listening to the wrong records. Later they fell in with those terrible underground rappers who destroyed everything they touched and it was clear it was time to stop caring. But that was later, this is still 2000, they were on a promising postrock label from Chicago called Aesthetics, and at the time they seemed pleasant. I was, remember, in a susceptible state. It was nice to be in a place where they played Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra. Is it possible that L’Altra was playing with Hood? Maybe. There might have also been a terrible Italian opening band. I don’t remember anything about Hood.

This CD, though, I’m fairly certain that I bought this CD at that Hood show. I’d never heard Icebreaker (later Icebreaker International), but they were advertised as a side-project of Piano Magic, and they’d shown up in The Wire. (At that point, the magazines that I was reading regularly were The Wire, i-D, and the Times Literary Supplement, make of that what you will. Youth!) But I walked this CD home and opened it up, and the inside flap (all the well-designed CDs of that period were digipacks) explains that this is a record about NATO’s distant early warning system, which is almost a good concept for an album. (Their next album, which I bought when I arrived in New York, firmed up the conceptualism: entitled Trein Maersk, it was ostensibly recorded on a container ship of that name sailing around the world; straight-faced soundbites paid tribute to the glory of free trade, and the band had decided that it was okay to like techno, which improved things tremendously. That this was an enormous – and reasonably good, considering – joke was lost on most of the critics.) The tracks have names that fit in with the concept (“Co-prosperity Sphere,” “The Arctic Night,” “Reconnaissance Flight”) though all are instrumentals and one suspects that the titles were added after the fact.

Concept aside, the first track of this 49-minute CD (“Melody for NATO”) is far and away the best. This had appeared on a split 7” with Piano Magic; had I been more discerning and in a place where Piano Magic 7”s could have been procured, I could have skipped this CD entirely. Believing at that juncture in time that artists’ intentions should be honored and CDs should be listened all the way through, I listened to this CD all the way through many times; I remember nothing about any of the other tracks except that they’re mostly warm drones; looped synthesizers, a few Arctic-feeling samples, maybe, drums on a few tracks. They’re not at all unpleasant, but they’re nowhere as nice as the first one, which feels like a slow pop song without words. It’s a fine CD to put on when you’re going to bed – the first song is nice and then you’re asleep & things are happily going on in the world without you.

isan, “salle d’isan”

ISAN, Salle d’ISAN (EP, 2001)

isansalledisanSomebody’s family had a house in New Hampshire – was it really New Hampshire? one of those New England states where there’s a lot of winter – and I remember being in a large house and playing this late at night there. Why would I have done that? From this distance it seems like a horrific breach of good taste; I remember being upset at a party a few years later when a boorish friend of a friend brought his own music, terrible middlebrow indie, and started playing it, noting how he disapproved of the band’s politics (which really were the least offensive thing about them). Rochefoucauld says something about this, of course.

It’s not the worst thing to play late at night in someone’s cabin in the woods, I guess, but this is much more headphone music than anything else. This CD goes on for seventeen minutes; there are six tracks, but only the fourth, “Fullen Brimm,” sticks, because that has a much better bassline than any of the others (which seem to lack bass entirely). It’s almost menacing: things are layered on top, there’s some very delicate dubbiness, there’s a nice tension. The track before it, utterly forgettable, is named “Disruptive Elephant,” which I like; you always wonder if things have been mislabeled. I always wanted to like the other tracks more but couldn’t find anything to latch on to. With a CD, if you play one track over and over again you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Listened to now, the other tracks seem to verge on Tangerine Dream-style new age; there’s a little crunch that makes things uncomfortable, but this is overly pretty.

In Rome, I’d been listening to a lot of American indie; when I moved to New York, I was listening to much more wordless electronic music, the Björk album of that year being the fulcrum between the two. I wonder why? In New York, terrible indie music was all around – the Strokes and the White Stripes were in their ascendency – and it didn’t quite feel special. Electroclash was more entertaining, if obviously ridiculous, though that didn’t really seem like something one listened in a recorded form. Maybe my turn was a reaction against the static of the city. There’s not much public space in New York; when one arrives without money, there aren’t that many places one can go. Loitering is frowned upon. Thus, headphones.