Post-punk

Jody Harris/Robert Quine “Escape” (Infidelity, 1981)

 

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Talk about an unheralded masterpiece… Escape is a ludicrously under-acknowledged gem from New York City’s fertile early-’80s sonic crucible. Masterly guitarists Jody Harris and Robert Quine had their tentacles in some of the Big Apple’s most important groups of the ’70s and ’80s, including Contortions, James White & The Blacks, Implog, the Raybeats, and Golden Palominos for the former and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Material, and Lou Reed for the latter. For Escape, Harris and Quine use guitars, bass, and electronic percussion to create a uniquely otherworldly work of rock that has few peers.

The 12-minute “Flagpole Jitters” must’ve boggled freaks’ minds aplenty when it first came out, even among those who traveled in the headiest of No Wave and post-punk circles. Oddly funky electronic percussion pistons nonchalantly while Harris and Quine engage in a frenzied guitar duel that sounds like Television—if Verlaine and Lloyd’s axes were retuned by Harry Partch. The shrill tonalities and frazzling intensity of the playing shove this epic song into a WTF plane of its own, a communiqué from an advanced species recreating rock according to its own utterly bizarre instincts. Seriously, it’s damn near impossible to hear rock the same way after you’ve been exposed to “Flagpole Jitters.”

By comparison, “Don’t Throw That Knife” can’t help seeming a tad anticlimactic; it tones down the extreme timbres and settles into an intoxicating, low-slung cha-cha groove as Quine and Harris brandis pointillist, crystalline six-string origami. The effect is not unlike some of the more tropical cuts on Can’s Ege Bamyasi and, perhaps coincidentally, some of Robert Fripp’s extended and exotic sonorities on King Crimson’s Discipline. Be very excited. On “Up In Daisy’s Penthouse,” relaxed drum-machine rhythms percolate under slanting, clangorous guitar murmurs and enigmatic sighs. It makes me think of Muzak™ that might be heard on Pluto, which is a high compliment.

Escape‘s most urgent, driving rocker, “Termites Of 1938” zips with persistent hi-hat tsss and guitars that bite with the alien causticity of Chrome’s Helios Creed; eventually, said guitars pile up into huge parabolas of barbed wire; voilà, a new kind of raveup. “Pardon My Clutch” ends the album with what sounds like a 11-minute rockabilly pastiche from a couple of futuristic dudes who genuinely respect the style, but can’t help subverting it with slurred slivers of Harvey Mandel-esque guitar ectoplasm that are humorously at odds with the jaunty, canned beats.

I would say seek out Escape ASAP, before mugs read this review and start jacking up the price beyond its current reasonable $10-$15 range. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pere Ubu “Datapanik In The Year Zero” (Radar, 1978)

 

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This five-track EP is a neat, efficient way to experience epochal Cleveland rock band Pere Ubu’s early material, derived from four singles released before the classic debut LP The Modern Dance exploded in the underground scene. Datapanik In The Year Zero contains some of the group’s greatest songs, plus “Heaven,” a rare descent into mawkish sentimentality. I know some of you dig it, but it strikes me as a misguided attempt at radio airplay, albeit through the unconventional backdoor of American white-boy reggae (that Tim Wright bass line is no joke, Jah bless). Anyway, let’s get to the all-time classics, which appear here in slightly altered form.

Heart Of Darkness” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” of course, stand as canonical slabs of rock existentialism rarely matched in the four decades since their release. The former’s lines “I don’t see anything that I want” and “Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall” compose some of the most shattering lyrics in rock. They remind me of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in their poignant estrangement from societal norms. The whole song’s so fucking ominous and full of unimaginable portent; too bad Joseph Conrad never had the chance to hear this. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” is one of the most chilling pieces of music of the last 41 years. It recalls early Black Sabbath’s churning doom, but ruptured by an instrumental section full of noisy urgency and chaos, depicting the nervous system of a World War II pilot carrying the atomic bomb. By the end, the song appears to be splintering and tearing apart at the seams, which is an ideal way to finish such a harrowing composition. It’s a perfect convergence of the heaviest of subject matter with utterly gut-wrenching sonic abstract expressionism.

Relief comes from “Cloud 149,” one of Ubu’s most frantic and debauched pieces; it’s like a splenetic, sped-up version of ska, albeit sidetracked by a strain of garage-rock rave-up à la the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Yet another peak in Ubu’s bulging catalog. “Untitled” is a rougher, earlier version of “The Modern Dance,” which, of course, appeared on the 1978 LP of the same name. Undulating and angular, the song moves with implacable, subliminal swiftness, until it pauses for a combustible jazz-fusion interlude. Tom Herman’s needling guitar origami nudges this track into a higher echelon of post-punk. And while I badmouthed “Heaven” above, it actually has too much understated weirdness—especially from Allen Ravenstine’s ill synth emissions—to attain hit status. It’s just that compared to everything else on Datapanik, it sounds rather conventional. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Pavement “Perfect Sound Forever” (Drag City, 1990)

 

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For a long time, I was a Slanted & Enchanted guy. I thought that had to be Pavement’s pinnacle… because that was the one that sounded most like the Fall. Impeccable logic, right? When Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out, I thought Pavement had gone a bit corny, a bit too R.E.M.ish. Pavement’s difficult third album, Wowee Zowee, restored my faith in Stephen Malkmus and company’s ability to get weird and unpredictable while still keeping things pretty structured. And then, for reasons I can’t really pinpoint, I stopped following Pavement. I just plain ignored Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight. Maybe it was because I got intensely into IDM and drum & bass. One of these years I’ll go back and explore the last two Pavement full-lengths, but right now I have more important matters at hand.

Anyway, this preamble is just a roundabout way to say I’m reassessing my internal Pavement ranking system. I would like to argue that Pavement peaked on Perfect Sound Forever. (It originally came out on 10-inch, the fourth ever release on the esteemed Drag City Records; you can also find it on the compilation Westing [By Musket And Sextant].) Perfect Sound Forever‘s only 12 minutes long, but it epitomizes Pavement’s early phase, and it’s an exemplary bridge between their first couple of scrappy singles and the accomplished indie-rock obscurantism of Slanted & Enchanted.

“Heckler Spray” is one of the most brilliant opening salvos ever, a bravura noise-rock intro that separates the wheat from the boys and the men from the cream. These are the most heroic and needling guitar tones Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg ever wrangled from their axes. Bow down to their majesty. If you want to hear how best to create a subdued rock anthem, study “From Now On.” On “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent,” heavy and jagged guitars menacingly lurch, punctuated by staunch, hard beats. Then cooler heads prevail with the “Mellow Jazz Docent” section, which is still a deceptively scathing yet laid-back rejoinder to the first segment. Malkmus and his cohorts sound so effortlessly assured, blending melodic chops with an exhilaratingly caustic guitar attack.

“Drive-By-Fader” and “Krell Vid-user” form very strange and distorted bookend interludes on the second side. These brief, bizarre noise experiments represent Pavement’s most unhinged moments. By contrast, “Home” is some kind of slacker rock apotheosis. But then comes “Debris Slide,” Pavement’s zenith. It’s the catchiest, most raucous, and coolest song in their canon—like a bubblegum Sonic Youth tune, and perfectly titled.

Speaking of titles, Perfect Sound Forever cleverly deflated the music industry’s laughably overblown compact disc hype while also marking Pavement as world-class wise guys who could pen indelible hooks and blowtorch your ears at the same time. Best. Pavement. Record. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Thomas Leer “4 Movements” (Cherry Red, 1981)

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Scottish musician/vocalist Thomas Leer made some of the most interesting song-based electronic music of the original post-punk era, but he’s never achieved much more than cult status. In all honesty, though, he should be as well known as Soft Cell, if not as widely loved as New Order, to name only two contemporaneous UK acts. 4 Movements was the first Leer release I heard, and it remains my favorite to this day, although Private Plane EP and the Contradictions LP are also highly recommended. As another British group, Hot Chocolate put it, every 1′s a winner.

4 Movements‘ opener, “Don’t,” is a gleaming jewel of continental dance music overlaid with Leer’s elegantly pained vocals. It strikes you as accessible and danceable synth pop on one level, but there’s something deceptively complex happening under the surface: a sneakily wiggly bass line, frosty and fibrillating synth whorls, spectral backing vocals… or are they yet more synths? Whatever the case, you’re paying close attention and working up a sweat. “Letter From America” shimmies into earshot with a quasi-cha-cha rhythm and an exotic array of synth tones, which elevate this song into the vicinity of Haruomi Hosono’s all-time stunner, Cochin Moon. Perhaps the EP’s most poppy cut, “Letter From America” finds Leer singing with a seething, Howard Devoto-like suavity.

“Tight As A Drum”—which bears a vague resemblance to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “The Carrier” from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts—is staunch, five-dimensional dub in a hall of illusory synth mirrors—very disorienting. I love to play this track at DJ gigs and watch people try to make sense of it. The final track, “West End,” slithers with a silvery, slick rhythm and bursts with tightly controlled, ecstatic synthetic horns. Again, there’s a lot of subliminal sonic sorcery going on: contrapuntal synth lines, bizarre burbles and ripples. It’s like a new kind of snake-charmer music, and it’s incredibly sensuous.

Thomas Leer was on fire creatively during this period, and you should seek out anything with his name on it from then—especially 4 Movements. (Oh, by the way: Someone should reissue this… perhaps Superior Viaduct or Dark Entries?) -Buckley Mayfield

A Certain Ratio “To Each…” (Factory, 1981)

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Has funk ever sounded so freezer-burned and so desolate as A Certain Ratio’s 1981 masterpiece, To Each…? It’s doubtful. ACR and Martin Hannett’s stark, ultra-grey production makes the vocals sound distant and ghoulish, as if they’re coming from a meat locker a block away, while the horns seem to petrify in the dank air before they reach their resolution. But Jez Kerr’s bass throbs with a robust vitality and drummer Donald Johnson keeps things kinetic and ridiculously lubricious. Would James Brown or George Clinton acknowledge To Each… as a specimen from their hard-forged genre? Maybe George would, because he’s an open-minded cat, but the eerie aura that haunts these nine tracks makes me think trad funk aficionados may give it the cold shoulder. I hope to persuade them—and you—to not do so.

All this being said, To Each… definitely has some party jams. “Choir” is an adrenalized surge of funk that carries a Contortions-esque urgency and scathing guitars à la the Pop Group. “Back To The Start” is one of the funkiest and most methodically relentless tunes of the ’80s. While the cavalcade of Latin percussion is muy festive, the female vocals and horn charts on it are literally ill. (Compliment!) “The Fox” is so manic and panicked, it should be used to reanimate heart-attack victims. “Loss” is so goddamn stealthy, so goddamn rubbery, so goddamn grunty… and funkier than Sly Stone’s goddamn silk scarf. To Each… ends on a strange note: the mesmerizing, nearly 13-minute “Winter Hill,” a platform for Johnson’s martial-funk stickwork, which is swathed in murky, ectoplasmic guitar feedback and scary zombie chants. It’s an ambitious anti-climax.

Clearly, To Each… is one of the crowning achievements in Factory Records’ esteemed catalog and paragon of outré, alienated funk. Get on the good (club)foot. -Buckley Mayfield