Listening to…

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx, We’re New Here.

Still so far out there that many people can’t locate him, even an underdone Gil-Scott Heron collaboration like this one (with Jamie xx, the musician/remixer from the band which shares his surname, adding his stamp to Scott-Heron’s earlier album I’m New Here) has a revelation in every track. There’s grooviness which gets coarse quickly (“The Crutch”), bubbly sounds that devolve into Tom Waits-ish blues (“Home”) and muddiness which turns unexpectedly crisp and danceable (Ur Soul and Mine). Nothing on the album ends the way it began, except the wistful “Piano Player,” a one-minute-and-21-second late-in-the-album-interlude that seems flown in from some farflung Brechtian cabaret climes. Not a mindmeld by any means, but Jamie xx enables Gil Scott-Heron to mess with your head as handily as ever.

Comics Book of the Week

Hate Annual #9 (Fantagraphics)

It is my considered opinion that, with his overstuffed anthologies Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does Jersey—Peter Bagge wrote the great American novel. Those books compile eight years of adventures of slacker-era everyman Buddy Bradley, as issued bi-monthly or so in Bagge’s own comic book Hate. The Buddy Bradley stories hang together so well in long form, forming such an indelible and rich portrait of life in the 1990s, that Bagge’s pulling back his output to a single Hate Annual per year since 2001 seems sad.

If it weren’t so dead-on and funny. And, much as I hate to say it, appropriate to the storyline. Buddy Bradley’s settled down. He’s married with a kid. He’s found an identity that suits him—and that involves wearing a captain’s hat and an eye patch, a far cry from his youth when he was indistinguishable from millions of other plaid-shirted long-haired 20somethings. In the earlier Buddy Bradley escapades, whole issues could be taken up with the aftermath of a bad date. Middle-age isn’t as spontaneous or combustible. Bagge perceives this and doles out the action at the proper pace, however annoying that might be to readers who crave more frequent episodes.

Hate Annual #9 involves that old novelistic trope of watching one’s parents grow old and having to consider putting them in a nursing home. Bagge expands the premise considerably. For starters, the parents are Buddy’s wife Lisa’s parents, and Buddy’s never even met them. The story involves a family trip and lots of unsavory supporting characters. In presenting Buddy Bradley as a relatively responsible (or at the very least, self-aware) adult, the 24-page multi-chapter adventure becomes as much about juvenility as senility, with Buddy in the deep center.

So colorful it adds to the creepiness of some of the characters, this is yet another burst of brilliance from a writer/artist who uses grotesque cartoons as ways to paint empathetic portraits of modern life. We may continue to, as the comics’ old promo stickers used to say, “Love Hate”—while hating to wait a whole year between installments.

Rock Gods #121: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

We’re like red mulch. We were all sharp and shiny, and we just got ground into dirt.”

That’s an assessment of the music industry by Russ Itch (ne Itzkawicz), who’s named his new purposely non mainstream project Red Mulch as a result.

He’s planning to keep the music fresh and red- hot and untrammeled this time.

“No studio tricks. No overdubs. No session musicians. No extra producers. No nothin’,” he swears.

Oh. Also no guitars, drums or bass. Piano is where it’ s at. Prepared piano with little woodchips under some odd the wires to enhance the lower notes and add a clippiness to the upper range. You can hear the results on a four track tape available at Red Mulch’s next gig, Wednesday at the Bullfinch.

Comparatively naïve bands which wouldn’t mind being signed at pervade the scene tonight: The Norm Law, Denby Quits and Wiener Dog at the Bullfinch… Shelly’s Old Flame, The Hopeless Cause and Versus the Kid at Hamilton’… and at least one band that’s “made it,” The Denbys, at D’ollaires with up-and-comers (or down-and-goers) Crush on You…

Listening to…

Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

I distrust the saxophone as a solo instrument, if only because it’s such an important member of soul, R&B and jazz conversations that it seems a shame to let it blurt lonesomely. Colin Stetson’s got a relationship to the instrument that makes it seem more like a Terry Riley keyboard, and I’m fascinated. Recorded without overdubs but with an array of microphones, Stetson’s minimalist bleeps and bloops and tentative melodies echo, glide and bounce off the walls. Some sounds are fraught (the haunted “Home”), others are funky and fresh (the rollicking “Red Horse”). It all ends with the foghorn industrial “In Love and Justice,” which reminds of how little Stetson is working with here, and how much he’s capable of.

Back in the single file

[Christopher Arnott continues to recount his 45s]

The Coral, Dreaming of You/Answer Me/Follow the Sun. The whole white British soul/psychedelic scene of the late 1990s/early 2000s sounds so tentative now, so underproduced and a bit out of it. It was an exercise, a step in a direction later realized more fully and creatively by hip-hop and neo-glam acts. But thanks for trying, guys.

The Vagabonds, Too Much Tension/No Outlet. There are bands called The Vagabonds all over the planet, have been for eons. This one was from Rocky Hill, Ct., and palled around with New Haven power pop exemplars Chopper. This single from ’87 keeps the band’s shoutiness and unfettered guitar solos crisp and neat, which is not how I remember them live.

Names for Pebbles, Sunnybank/Under My Blanket. A one-sided two-song 33rpm single—the flipside is utterly flat and grooveless and blank. Frisky pop strummings with thoughtful lyrics, evokes a whole era of pleasant young bands holding forth in the mid-1990s on small club stages before the well-dressed collegiates who couldn’t handle the ska or hardcore scenes their peers were flocking to.

The Woggles, Carnivore! EP. Four songs (“Carnivore,” “Flash Flood,” “You Belong to Me,” “Hi Hi Pretty Girl”) on a single 45 rpm seven-inch. A woman appears in the band photos on the sleeve, which led to some confusion when the Georgia-rooted garage band appeared at Cheri’s on York St. for a 1993 gig in which they’d been paired with the female-fronted local garagistas The Botswanas. Keyboardist Donna Bowman had left the band between the recording of this single and the subsequent touring the band did. It took The Woggles 17 years to make it back to New Haven, but they’ve been back a couple times since. Singer Manfred Jones has become a noted archivist of underground ‘60s rock, helping program the Little Steven Underground Garage radio show. The recordings lack Manfred’s flailing hairdo yet hold up just fine.

Raspberries, Go All the Way/Tonight. Have it on CD, cassette, LPs… but this is one of those records that was made to be a vinyl 45 (on the Beatles-cool Capitol label, yet). I once dated someone who thought the song was saying “Goooo Away” rather that “Go Away,” begging off rather than getting it on. Gave me a fresh perspective that totally renewed the tune for me.

Rock Gods #120: Adventures in Our Little Music Scene

Inspiration struck like a speeding bus. Two of them, even, headlong from different directions.

“We’d been on a road trip,” writes in Geoff of the up-for-anything band GOTM, “and we got tired of the board games and the mystery novels and the videos. We really enjoy playing music together, so somebody is always playing or practicing or writing.

In one city, one of those cars with the big bass speakers in back, blasting the hip-hop, pulls up next to us. As a joke, we start playing back, loud as we can. Suddenly we’re in this musical drag race to the corner. Could have gone either way, guy could have been a total asshole, but he was great and we had a lot of fun.”

Then, in a college town, GOTM was wandering the campus after their gig and noticed one of those electric folk duos—almost always a male guitarist and a female singer—doing one of those increasingly popular routines where they play in the driveway of a student-populated house, using their car as a stage and an electricity source. “It struck several of us at one,” Geoff says—meaning the idea and not the car. “It seemed so wrong for the car to be parked.”

The band already mingles electronics and live acoustic instruments, so they felt up to the challenge. Within three weeks they’d written a song cycle which could be played and enjoyed through the open windows of a moving vehicle. The driver is allowed to play along on the car horn (“it happens to be a perfect B flat,” according to Geoff) while the rhythm section (bass sounds via keyboards) occupies the back seat and the singer rides shotgun.

So far, this street symphony has sounded along the highway, on residential streets on Saturday nights, and in a town parade. This Wednesday it will be performed in the round driveway at the Arthur K. Nifferstein High School (affectionately known as Rat Fink High). It’s an official school event, arranged by GOTM keyboardist and RFH alum Christopher Snook. The crowd will sit within the grass oval while the GOTM car circles at 5 mph. The school is being filmed for a driver’s safety class. (We made that up.)

Listening to…

Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years.

That whole overblown Interpol/Arcade Fire thing that’s all the orchestrated rage these days is tough to pull off. Cold Cave avoids sounding derivative by actually sounding like they mean what they’re saying, and rushing that whole storm-in-a-studio ambiance a few steps faster than a lot of other bands in this growing genre. The vocals cut through, the guitars cut through, a sense of purpose cuts through: “Yeah, I will come running” in the mythically titled “The Great Pan is Dead,” “I’ll carry your cross, now baby, it’s a blasphemous world today” in the throbby “Underworld USA.”  Not overpowering the way you expect it to be. Uplifting, almost.

Only ’80s I really knew

The Other Eighties—A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan

By Bradford Martin (Hill and Wang, 2011; 242 pages)

According to the author’s preface, his “challenge” was to write a book about the ‘80s that wasn’t beholden to “the singular figure” who “dominated national life during the decade.” Pity, then that he couldn’t even keep Ronald Reagan’s name out of the book’s very subtitle.

Speaking as someone who was in their 20s in the 1980s and couldn’t have existed then without an active subculture to escape into, I can testify that alternatives to Reaganism were vast and endless. This was the decade of MTV, videocassettes, CDs, cable TV, public access television, underground newspapers, affordable computerized typesetting, Max Headroom and numerous other new ways to package and disseminate information . The Fairness Doctrine was still in effect until 1987, so talk-radio was legally obligated to offer balanced viewpoints. No, you couldn’t entirely ignore the president of the United States, but it was easy to not take him seriously.

I wish Bradford Martin wasn’t pegging his book on such a specious concept, and I wish he would address some of those new resources which leftists and radicals used to spread the word, rather than simply profile groups and individuals who were illustrative of iconic 1980s concerns. Cultural context is lacking, other than the obvious “a very popular Republican was president.”

Luckily, Martin is a good researcher and a fine storyteller, so his guided tour makes up for what it lacks in perspective by simply engaging the reader with the growth of

In each chapter, he tell an interesting, concise tale of a movement which fell outside the government’s purview. You don’t question his definition of what constitutes a non-mainstream movement; it’s easy to establish what the counterculture consists of when, as the Reagan administration did, the  government pointedly ignores things they didn’t want people to make a fuss about. That includes the AIDs epidemic, punk rock, anti-apartheid activism, new feminist movements and covert military war-waging in Central America. All those areas are ably covered here.

His previous book was The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America, so you might expect Bradford Martin to A.) draw frequent comparisons with the Peace & Love generation and B.) discuss theater. The fact that he does neither is something I find admirable. In a book about the 1980s, he doesn’t mention Andrew Lloyd Webber once. Cool.

I particularly like how he deftly handles the chapter on “Noise from Underground: Post-Punk Music, Culture and Politics.” You can get a sense of his control from the chapters’ subheadings: “Defining Post-Punk,” “Post-Punk and Its Fans,” “Post-Punk and Antimilitarism,” “Race, Gender, and Proletarian Play: Indentity Politics in Post-Punk” and “1991: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Lollapalooza and the Politics of Co-optation.” If that all seems like so much grad-school-speak, Martin’s heart is clearly in it. He’s wary of deeming any particular bandsas too influential or popular, or to label them as something it’s not. He’s documenting a movement, and his concern is not who leads it but who gets swept up in it:

The Replacements and R.E.M. shed light on post-punk’s elasticity. Both came from the small club, independent label roots that epitomize post-punk, yet both achieved popular acclaim well before the genre’s commercial breakthrough in 1991. The Red Hot Chili Peppers shared similar underground roots but relied heavily on African American-inflected musical forms such as funk, rap, and hip-hop. What tied these disparate bands together was less a shared musical aesthetic than a set of influences from 1970s punk, including a do-it-yourself production ethos emphasizing authenticity rather than technological perfection; aural dissonance that consciously challenged mainstream popular music; transgressive subject matter in lyrics and associated visual imagery; and live performances that attempted to bridge the distance between the performers and the audience.

I can overlook all the big words and be thankful that he knows the difference between bands that drew from punk and bands that were punk.

Likewise, he doesn’t make his chapter on ACT-UP and the AIDS crisis all about a central figure like Larry Kramer, deserving as he might be. His interest is in the masses, and in the number of smaller gestures it took in order to achieve a breakthrough in mass consciousness. Martin’s take on the vice presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro is more insightful than any of the obituaries which ran when she died last month, because he discusses the campaign and its symbolism rather than dwelling on her personal attributes.


This book deserves to be taught in classrooms. It reads at times like a textbook. I hope it isn’t relegated to preaching to the choir in courses already earmarked as alternative and countercultural. I’d like high schoolers, whose parents lived through this era, to get ahold of this book. Its thesis—this is not your Reagan America—may be weak, but The Other Eighties is a full-blown history tome nonetheless, creating its own workable priorities whether or not it’s consciously countering the “official” history of the times.