The Jesus And Mary Chain, Psychocandy; Darklands; Automatic; Honey’s Dead; Stoned (Rhino)

The Jesus And Mary Chain - Psychocandy; Darklands; Automatic; Honey's Dead; Stoned The Jesus And Mary Chain
Psychocandy; Darklands; Automatic; Honey's Dead; Stoned
By: Eric Greenwood

If you only know three chords, play them loudly. The Jesus and Mary Chain took this axiom and turned it on its head. With a cache of predictable influences, Scottish brothers Jim and William Reid turned underground music into a freak show in the mid-'80's in England. On paper the band's brilliance doesn't seem very exciting: slow The Velvet Underground down to half speed, toss off some Beach Boys harmonies infused with depraved vulgarity, and drench it all in as much reverb, feedback, and squalling distortion as possible.

Psychocandy, the essential soundtrack for affected teen ennui, introduced The Jesus and Mary Chain's unique formula with riotous underground fanfare. No one could have predicted that such rudimentary music could sound so simultaneously fractured, blissed-out, and alive, but the Reid brothers' stoic nonchalance turned out to be one of the most influential sounds since The Velvet Underground itself.

The band's superior sense of melody certainly helped its difficult music affect so many listeners. With calculated machismo, an endless arsenal of power pop sensibilities, and layers upon layers of noise, Psychocandy was the touchstone for practically every late-'80's/early '90's underground band, including My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. And it's arguably responsible for the entire shoegaze movement all by itself. The hollow frailty of perverted classics like "Just like Honey" and "My Little Underground" proved the Reid brothers to be masterful pop craftsmen hiding behind a wall of incessant cacophony. The elements might not have been original, but the sum certainly was.

Abandoning its singular sonic identity with as much blithe disaffection as was inherent to their music, the Reid brothers followed up their landmark debut with only barely recognizable remains. Without a squealing guitar in sight, Darklands bravely tested the band's fanbase with a collection of maudlin guitar pop, focusing on its dour sense of melody and penchant for '60's folk arrangements. Only very faint background fuzz relates it to Psychocandy's joyful dissonance.

The result annoyed most critics and hardcore fans who longed for Psychocandy 2, but the songs themselves didn't need any gimmicky aural horror to sustain interest. The first single, "April Skies", proved Jim Reid's rumbling baritone could hold its own without a showy backdrop, and the title track rose to the level of anything off Psychocandy. The only hindrance to the album was its reliance on stuttering drum machines, which make it sound awkwardly dated, especially on this remaster.

The brothers had long since lost their underground sway by 1989's Automatic. Cashing in on a burgeoning alternative celebrity status, they quickly became late night MTV darlings with the success of "Head On", a straightforward rocker that mixed T. Rex flash with a seedy, biker edginess. It was the band's biggest hit to date, which the Pixies would cover only two years later with even greater success on its final album, Trompe Le Monde.

For all its lazy, trigger-fire production and commercial swagger, Automatic showcased a respectable, if slightly ho-hum, batch of tunes. The aggro "Blues from a Gun" and the obvious Lou Reed homage, "Halfway to Crazy", being the standouts.

With the controversial hook, "I wanna die just like Jesus Christ" ("Reverence"), The Jesus and Mary Chain returned better than ever in 1992 on Honey's Dead . Avoiding much of Automatic's stale rock bravado, the brothers branched out to incorporate dance beats effectively for the first time. The band's dynamism focused on dramatic tonal shifts, which brought back a much more controlled version of Psychocandy's hair-raising feedback. It's a tense and ominous record seething with muted aggression and studio mastery.

Once again overreacting to the noise, The Reid brothers pulled in the reins for Stoned & Dethroned, a breezy, country/folk album recorded with a full band. The threat of violent bursts of guitar squalor hangs heavy over the record, and it's that sense of menace that keeps the laid back atmosphere in check.

Rhino has reissued these five albums in a remastered, DualDisc format with an advanced resolution DVD side. The extras are fairly thin, tacking on the videos from each record with few rarities, but if your stereo can accommodate the superior sound upgrade, these discs are definitely worth your time. Candy-coated harmonies draped in howling feedback never sounded so good.

More Information available from Rhino:

Honey's Dead
Stoned & Dethroned

Orgone Accumulator

When I sat down this past Saturday at Adriana’s with bassist Lauren Andino and guitarist Willie May from Orgone Accumulator (which also features Andy Woodward and Josh Smith on drums and electronics, respectively) to talk about their final show as a band, they were sort of thrown off by my hand-held cassette recorder. I told them not to worry about it and just try to ignore it, but their eyes would nervously glance at it as they casually explained why they’re breaking up, moving away, and never playing as a band again.

It’s obviously not a dramatic blow-up causing the premature demise, since half the band showed up to talk amicably about it. Everyone is still friends- it’s just a matter of age and logistics and timing causing the split, but May is definitive: “Yeah, this is the last show. We’re not going to get together and play again as a band. This project is finished, and I’m not upset or sad because I know we’re all going to do music again later and eclipse Orgone Accumulator.”

When the band started two years ago, Andino and May said they both wanted to emulate the sound and impact of the early ’90’s shoegaze movement, particularly the lush soundscapes of Slowdive, since no band in Columbia has ever quite captured that sound. But things evolved by accident, as Andino explains: “We didn’t really set any goals. We just started playing for fun and it turned out to be good.” Their initial recordings in a metal practice space with Asa Collier engineering were haphazard and, Andino adds, “really raw sounding, so we kept it that way because it made everything sound a whole lot more brutal.” The resulting two songs focused on May’s jarring, complicated guitar patterns, which pushed the band away from any shoegaze leanings and into a much more experimental realm.

May says that realm has expanded with recent writing, and now he thinks the music more closely represents “an environment- a specific environment, a combination of all our influences”, or as Andino calls it “structured noise.” When I asked them what influences, specifically, had significant impact on their recent ideas, May begged off because, he says, “we don’t want to sound like any one band.” But he did admit that funk, world music, Jamaican music, specifically, Brian Eno’s ambient work, and experimentalists Gang Gang Dance were heavy on his mind as they worked through their new ideas.

Recently recording again with Collier (who the band attributes to “saving their lives” with his extraordinary engineering effort) but this time in a much more refined, “studio-like” setting, Orgone has 5 new songs, which will be combined with its early practice space session and two Sound Lab recordings to comprise a nine-track document of its brief existence. Homemade, letter-pressed artwork will accompany each disc, and the small pressing of 250 will all be ready by the final show this week with friends Alaska the Tiger opening.

May is heading off to college next month to study at Winthrop, while Andino is uprooting completely and moving to New York City with people she doesn’t know and with no real plan firmly in place: “I may go to school in a year or so.” So, the break-up isn’t a surprise ending or a dramatic turn of events. They all knew the band was transient from the start and just wanted to see what they could accomplish while it lasted. Up to this point it’s been a modest dent in Columbia’s music scene, but the band was certainly on track for great things to come. Its fearlessness live combined with such ambitious musical intentions has made Orgone Accumulator one of Columbia’s most promising bands. Even if they each have no regrets, it’s still a shame Columbia won’t ever know what might have been, but as May claims, at least his bandmates will “represent the dirty south for life.”

Sonic Youth, Rather Ripped (Geffen)

Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped Sonic Youth
Rather Ripped
By: Eric Greenwood

As strange as it may seem, the first few notes of "Reena", the opening track of Sonic Youth's 14th album, Rather Ripped, sound like Belle & Sebastian. Has Sonic Youth gone twee? Well, no, not really, but it has put out its most concise, stripped down, and pop (well, pop for Sonic Youth) record in years.

Sonic Youth gets the same argument leveled at it that Stereolab, or any band whose longevity extends beyond a decade, does. And that argument's lowest common denominator is the bane of repetition. What could Sonic Youth possibly say 25 years after its formation that it hasn't already said countless times over?

I think the premise of that argument is false. It isn't about repetition. Bands repeat themselves constantly, even as they progress. Rock music is too limited of a medium to expect constant reinvention. So, as such, Sonic Youth has every chance of putting out a relevant record now as it ever has, notwithstanding its age and productivity.

Alas, Rather Ripped isn't Sonic Youth's masterpiece. That record has come and gone (1989's Daydream Nation). But what Rather Ripped offers is a band in its twilight still capable of creating music with ambition and dynamism without sacrificing its earliest hippie-cum-punk ideals.

Uncharacteristically, the alternate tunings, washes of feedback, programmed beats, and off-kilter harmonics are used in conjunction with hooks, choruses, and memorable guitar interplay. Kim Gordon asserts herself more so than usual as well, which should be cause for alarm based on her recent incoherent ramblings on A Thousand Days and NYC Ghosts & Flowers. But she actually steps up to the plate and whisper-warbles her best batch of songs in a decade.

The expectation for noise hangs above the band like a black cloud. I think it borders on parody at this point. Sonic Youth has used noise in every conceivable context over the years, particularly in its experimental SYR series. So, Rather Ripped seems to go out of its way not to exploit that cliché. Perhaps, the departure of paranoid experimentalist Jim O'Rourke (who temporarily served as a producer with live benefits) inspired an internal backlash.

Those holding out for the band to unleash a record of unbridled, bombastic fury will be sorely disappointed, as Rather Ripped, despite its muscular misnomer, is a protracted record of grey, poetic restraint, but its holds up relatively well against even the peaks of its ambitious cannon.

Regina Spektor, Begin To Hope (Sire)

Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope Regina Spektor
Begin To Hope
By: Eric Greenwood

Regina Spektor isn't just another in an endless line of quirky female singer-songwriters with classical training; she adds Russian Jew from New York City to the formula, which may or may not scare you away. Her penchant for hyperbolic melancholy and fairy tale whimsy easily invites comparisons to the post-Plathian Fiona Apples and Tori Amoses of the world, but she's infinitely more bizarre than both put together.

Spektor's last record, Soviet Kitsch, showcased her intimidating talent as a composer as well as her uncanny ability to turn nattering self-deprecation into dramatic bombast without alienating the listener. Her voice trills effortlessly through coos and girlish hiccups and then unexpectedly bursts into sustaining blasts of operatic power. It's an odd mix of sparse pop, flowery piano balladry, wild eccentricity and random verbal playfulness that annoys as much as it entreats.

Her first proper major label recording, Begin to Hope, leans slightly towards a more pop-oriented domain with radio-accessible songs like "Better" that may offend her fanatic base of fans (the ones who just crave the weirdo piano-ballad drama), but the record expands on her growing strength as a purveyor of idiosyncratic anti-pop with more depth and breadth. Spektor's command of melody is staggering in its ability to lull listeners into her short attention span and spastic synaptic misfires, which make up the foundation of her frighteningly unique music.

Having toiled away her early twenties in the New York City café scene with her oddly confessional anti-folk, Spektor caught a break when producer Gordon Raphael hooked her up with The Strokes, whom she opened for on a 2003 tour. With some real exposure under her belt, Spektor is now on the cusp of turning her niche fanbase into something far more secure and lasting. Begin to Hope, despite its girly angst title, could easily be the record to break her.

Thom Yorke, The Eraser (XL)

Thom Yorke - The Eraser Thom Yorke
The Eraser
By: Eric Greenwood

It's easy to assume that Thom Yorke pulls most of the strings in Radiohead. He's the singer, ergo, the focal point, and he plays guitar. It's a fair assumption. But one listen to The Eraser, and it's clear that his influence extends only so far. So, that means there's good news and bad news. The good news is that all of the members of Radiohead pull their own weight musically. The bad news is that The Eraser sounds a little thin compared to the music of the mothership.

Part of the reason Yorke probably kept this album under wraps for so long was because he didn't want a huge deal to be made of it. And with good reason. It's not anything earth-shattering, so all the fanfare that comes with a Radiohead release would be a bit embarrassing and over-done. If you're a Radiohead fan, The Eraser sounds almost exactly like you'd expect: looped noises, skittering beats, mutated guitars, and, of course, Yorke's mellifluous warble.

Even when Yorke is pushing boundaries sonically, he can't help but be melodic. He confronts political enemies and ideologies, but only in obscure verse. Ever tried to navigate Radiohead's website? Well, trying to follow Yorke's lyrics in any linear sense can often be just as vexing. Uncharacteristically, Yorke utilizes a first person narrative here, which plays well into his self-effacing personality. His paranoia is just as potent as it was a decade ago.

As with anything Yorke does, it's a dour, self-involved affair, but there are moments of sublime artistry. The man's voice has staggering potential to move listeners, and Yorke clearly knows the limitations and scope of his instrument and just exactly when to punch it up a notch. It's just that The Eraser sounds too familiar, too predictable when held to the high level of scrutiny his own band has forced on modern music with the forward-thinking, back to back genius of Ok Computer and Kid A.

On the other hand, if Yorke can toss off a solo record of this caliber without worrying about sacrificing his A-material, then the next Radiohead album has got to be mind-blowing.

Murder By Death, In Bocca Al Lupo (Tent Show)

Murder By Death - In Bocca Al Lupo Murder By Death
In Bocca Al Lupo
Tent Show
By: Eric Greenwood

On its second album, Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? (a title knicked from a Texas Chainsaw Massacre promotional movie poster), Bloomington, Indiana's Murder By Death weaved a thematic story of the devil's infiltration of a small Mexican town with a western-tinged twist on its cinematic, sweeping rock.

For In Bocca Al Lupo, released on the band's own Tent Show records, Murder By Death delves deeper into questions of the afterlife, employing the seven layers of hell in Dante's Inferno as its skeletal thematic scope. Of course, it's outrageously pretentious terrain, but Murder By Death has the musical chops to flaunt its aesthetic daring-do with such panache.

Though the devil still haunts him, lyrically, vocalist Adam Turla isn't as tied to the thematic indulgences of the last record, which allows for a looser, more varied atmosphere. Each song unfurls as a story unto itself, but the narrative is more expansive. The band's tour-toughened sound has evolved as well, incorporating odd time signatures, bustling pirate chants, early minor country, and an animated, orchestral backdrop to its dark, artsy rock, though none of it quite captures the band's blistering live intensity.

Turla sounds genuinely possessed with the vigor of a man who has sinister secrets to share. His affected whisper scratch vocal on "One More Notch" builds into a tempest of bleated dynamism. The rollicking roll of "Brother" stands out immediately among the band's best with its resigned refrain: "Well, I know there's better brothers/but you're the only one that's mine." It's a tightly wound country/folk rocker, which snowballs in intensity with each chorus until its calamitous climax. Sarah Balliet's dual role on keys and cello tightens the band's insular histrionics, while the rhythm section tries relentlessly to punch through the artistry with its latent post-punk intensity.

With grueling precision and continuing confidence, Murder By Death whips through its dramatic passages, as Turla unveils his dense, learned, and richly symbolic tales of sin, regret, pain, loss, and punishment. It's an engrossing and engaging record full of shout-along choruses, clever wordplay, and urgent, rocking, and string-laden crescendos that should propel this band above the emo fray that seems to have latched onto it.

Anakrid, Father (Stereonucleosis)

Anakrid - Father Anakrid
By: Eric Greenwood

Since the unexpected demise of Newgenics (a heavily-hyped, short-lived amalgamation of notable local musicians that put out one seven-inch on Level Plane Records), Columbia, South Carolina's Chris Bickel has kept a low profile. Well, low for Chris Bickel. Bickel still has a weekly karaoke stint, Mr. B's Goodtime Karaoke Explosion, and he has reunited sporadically with his infamous gay metal cohorts in Confederate Fagg, as well as fronting a Motley Crue tribute band. But, as far as the public release of original music is concerned, Bickel has been uncharacteristically unprolific the last few years.

All of that is about to change, as Bickel has just put out the first of an open-ended series of extremely limited edition, vinyl-only releases from his experimental pseudonym, Anakrid (the name of which stems from an ex-girlfriend's mangled pronunciation of Arachnid, which Bickel found ironically amusing since she prided herself in her pedantic, flowery vocabulary). Bickel fist began experimenting with compositional music in 1989 (with limited cassette-only releases debuting as early as 1990). Those familiar with Bickel's musical pedigree will note a significant duality in his modes of musical expression. As a dynamic frontman, he's always been heavily steeped in punk rock, but his solo records consistently veer more towards the esoteric.

Bickel says, "I got into stuff like that through punk rock, which led me to stuff like Throbbing Gristle, and that actually led me to a lot of 20th century classical." Bickel points to '50's composers like Stockhausen as references to what inspired this form of experimentation. I asked whether fans of his more traditionally "punk" bands like In/Humanity or Guyana Punch Line would be able to make the leap into appreciating Anakrid, which Bickel says is "hard to say", even though he views this music as a logical extension of punk's ethos: "I sort of see it as a part of punk rock that has nothing to do with punk rock."

And listening to it, one certainly would be hard-pressed to make the connection- at least sonically. This first Anakrid LP, Father, is anything but easy to describe. It's eerie, tribal, almost polyrhythmic yet not improvisational in the least. Bickel doesn't view his music as an excuse to wank off. It is deliberately composed. He eschews the use of conventional instrumentation, preferring found sounds, home-made instruments and pretty much anything that "makes a sound that can be sculpted and manipulated". I hear the abstract surrealism of Nurse with Wound or Current 93 in the creepy, industrial soundscapes, but there's certainly a thread of Stockhausen's electronic period, though it's not nearly as mathematical.

Bickel says he has hours and hours of music on tape that he pours over for new ideas: "A lot of the stuff that I work with is stuff that was recorded to four-track six or seven years ago, and I'll find maybe a one-second snippet that is really awesome and I'll sequence that in some way or loop it or manipulate it." If there is ever a normal instrument audible, it's certainly not played in an orthodox way.

Realizing that the audience for such challenging music is limited to say the least, Bickel has only pressed 350 copies of Father (featuring one of his notoriously "finished" paintings on the cover) on pristine 180 gram vinyl with no plans to repress. He has previously used grant money from USC to fund his Anakrid releases, but he plans to fund this vinyl series himself as long as he can afford to.

For those anxious for Bickel's less abstruse musical endeavors, he plans to fly out to San Diego in August to reunite with In/Humanity guitarist Paul Swanson "just to see what happens." Originally, Bickel and Swanson were asked to play as In/Humanity at a music festival in Philadelphia in late summer, but things fell through. Bickel is excited about the prospect of playing with his estranged friend again after so many years of no communication, but like anything in Bickel's illustrious career predicting a normal outcome is ill-advised.