And in the “What is this world coming to? Department: There’s more news (and commentary both cogent and reckless) about guns and dead bodies every day. (Violent problems need violent solutions.) My buddy Michael lost his job. (I got tension in my office.) Macklemore and Wayne Coyne are acting like asses. (Now they jump on any scandal that they can to try to save me.) My family is moving long-distance over the summer, but even the most fundamental aspects of our move haven’t been sorted out. (I’ve got tension and it’s everywhere that I go.) And I neglected to get my wife anything for our anniversary. So in order to escape all this tension, I put on some tunes man, trying to discover something new in old records. Bear with me.
I first hit on the idea to play an old compilation called Surfin’ Hits (Rhino 1989), which I picked up for a couple of bucks recently. What better way to get into the summer spirit, kick out the jams for Memorial Day Weekend, something like that. Only I always forget how creepy and also amateur-hour most surf music is. Let's face it, the distance between “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surf Rider” is enormous. And if Rhino is going to include Jack Nitzsche’s “The Lonely Surfer”, shouldn’t they also go the extra mile to bring on board “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze”? (But then they’d have to explain what “garfong” is.) The truth is, as spastic as the musicianship of the early Cramps was, it was only slightly inferior to the Rumblers’ “Boss” or the original “Surfin’ Bird” itself. I guess I’ll just take “Pipeline” and “Mr. Moto”, wave at how timely “New York’s A Lonely Town” is, and call it a day. Not headed to the pool.
Trying a different tack, I went around the world for some krautrock (realizing the element of irony this evokes vis a vis the Macklemore debacle). The urban depersonalization of Kraftwerk would be better suited as background for an exegesis of the role of mass media in the kissless virgin murders, a topic I'm sidestepping here. A better choice might be Agitation Free’s second album (Revisited Records, 2008), which comes from the pastoral-prog wing of the krautrock section at the strong recommendation of my pal Jason. Their jam is less incendiary and angular than Guru Guru’s, nor are they quite the dirty art commune revolutionaries that populated the various Amon Düül’s. It’s much easier to connect the dots in Agitation Free's overlong meandering drones when fragments of the Allman Brothers, the Dead, Velvet Underground, or the Beatles waft by from time to time. Verdict: Much more useful than LaMonte Young, although finding out that Agitation Free were on the cultural program of the 1972 Munich Olympics is a buzz-kill.
So how about some exotic downtempo electronica? Suba’s Såo Paulo Confessions (Ziriguiboom 1999) is the masterwork of a Serbian-born producer who became part of the hip inner circle of beat-wise Brazilian contemporary music (Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes, like that). Såo Paulo Confessions (which Milo Miles hepped me to) commingles post-MBP pop flourishes with thudding beats and course Eastern Europe inflections to create a techno-hash reverie that Tricky would vacation to. There’s something dystopian about this album, unsettling and underworldly in a way that club music sometimes intends but rarely achieves. Of course, the fact that Suba died in a fire at the release party for this record adds a whopping dose of bad karma to the proceedings.
My next stop arrived after thumbing through the paperback edition of Peter Hook’s excellent Joy Division bio Unknown Pleasures, which is far more substantial than I’d anticipated: funny, bitchy (poor Barney) but rarely trashy, wide-eyed, harrowing and eventually redemptive. It’s made me rethink my late loathing of Hooky’s rockishness and reminded me to revisit some other Martin Hannett productions, of which Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls’ lone full length is the only one to actually make it into the CD player. (Is that Durutti Column album really any good?) Murray was a part of the Durham Contingent and lead singer for the largely and sadly forgotten punk band Penetration, but by 1980 she was taking her girlish contralto on a pop journey, albeit a journey produced by the noted drug-hermit Hannett, which means the album often sounds like a musical washing machine. Ornate, byzantine, it’s too cluttered to be ethereal and more nerve-racking than would ever work on the radio (except maybe “Time Slipping”, which is genius). Invisible Girls is not quite comparable with the contemporaneous Mike Thorne-produced Holly & the Italians by Holly Beth Vincent (not to be confused with it’s predecessor, the absolutely power-pop-perfect The Right to Be Italian by Holly & the Italians—got that sorted out?). Thorne strips away most of the fuzz guitar from the first album and layers on rococo instrumentation mixed with Asian fanfares, as if Forever Changes had been recorded in Bangkok (and wouldn’t you believe that Arthur Lee woulda if he coulda). But Thorne brings over from his experience with Wire a full-throttled resonance that works wonders around Vincent’s sultry vocals, worldly tough-girl attitude, and velveteen melodicism. If “12XU” beat up some hippies in an alley, it would sound exactly like Vincent’s cover of “For What It’s Worth”. Inspirational bonus cut: Holly and Joey Ramone duetting "I Got You Babe".
So, let me wrap this up then with something highly dubious: the only true greatest hits album released by AC/DC (in Russia), Greatest Hell's Hits, which seems to be a legitimate Sony/BMG release and let’s hope the boys from Down Under, who have been notoriously resistant to releasing a best-of, are getting appropriately compensated by their parent label. Although the liner notes are garbled, the song titles on the back cover ring out loud and clear: 37 choice cuts that start with “Thunderstruck” and end with “Big Balls”, with nary a clunker in between. It’s uncomfortably easy to have bad thoughts when listening to these two CDs—that’s what the music is designed for—but it’s also a swell reminder not to sweat the small stuff. Maybe the summer won’t be so bad after all.