Tag Archives: punk

In a Free Land – Hüsker Dü

When I was around 15 or 16, in 1997 and 1998, I was constantly on the lookout for records by bands I’d read about and never heard. I’d read whatever American guitar magazines I could get my hands on (never passing a newsagent when I was out cycling around town without going in to see what they had) and any book about rock music in any of the libraries in the borough. Through the interviews I read in guitar magazines and books, I learned about Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr, the Minutemen, as well as a host of big-in-the-US acts that never made it over here.

One article in one of these magazines (a sort-of history of alternative rock that I really wish I’d kept. Talk about a time capsule!) was a retrospective of the Minneapolis music scene in the 1980s, which is where I found out all about Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum*. So when I saw an expanded edition of Hüsker Dü’s debut studio album, Everything Falls Apart, in Southend Library, I picked it up right away, barely pausing to ask how such an aggressive, low-budget artefact ended up in a public library, 4000 miles from where it was released on the band’s own label in 1982, when I was less than a year old. Frankly, I still don’t know who on earth was acquiring the records for Essex Libraries’ CD catalogue, but I’m mighty glad that said catalogue included Hüsker Dü.

Everything Falls Apart is a hardcore album, with several songs less than a minute long, and a total running time of around 25 minutes. So the label in charge of the reissue, Rhino, filled it out with the band’s early 7-inch singles and B-sides. One of which was In a Free Land, a track that hinted at what the band would go on to do as a more focused melodic force, rather than three guys playing so fast and screaming so hard the music was a barely coherent blur.

Hardcore was by its very nature political. All the bands were anti-government, some out of leftist convictions (they were appalled the country was now run by Reagan), some because of anarchist sympathies. In a Free Land, a rant against the education system and the wider society that it serves, was more in tune with the latter strain of hardcore (the hard-to-hear last line of the verse is “The only freedom worth fighting for is what you think”). Mould would revisit some of these themes later in his work (as on Copper Blue‘s The Slim, Mould’s response to losing someone to Aids), but his solo songs and those he recorded with Sugar were on the whole more concerned with his emotional life than the ones he wrote for Hüsker Dü.

In a Free Land, like Grant Hart’s Turn on the News from Zen Arcade, exists in a strange state. Familiar only to Hüsker diehards, it should be a standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it would be. So it was an enormous treat when I saw Mould play the Electric Ballroom in Camden a couple of months ago that In a Free Land was one of the Hüsker Dü songs he performed that night, alongside New Day Rising, Makes No Sense at All, I Apologise and Never Talking to You Again. It deserves its place in that elevated company.

In a Free Land

*Actually, I knew Soul Asylum via Runaway Train and owned Grave Dancers Union already, but had no idea they’d once been a hardcore band mentored and produced by Bob Mould.

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Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive marching-band snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be constantly beaten off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of David Bowie’s Low. Frantic and scabrous, 50 Foot Wave were unapologetically about power, energy and attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode; it’s not a subtle instrument), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback, as if beckoning the listener to come closer to her, before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was somewhat difficult – loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 3 – Marquee Moon by Television

In 2004, I was playing guitar in a band called Great Days of Sail, led by Yo Zushi (with whom I still play today). Our first show was supporting Lach at the Barfly in Camden. Lach was, even then, a veteran figure, and a biggish name for a new band to be supporting. He’s a New York songwriter and the originator of antifolk*, and is responsible for nurturing a host of like-minded artists at The Fort, the night he ran at the Sidewalk Cafe. On stage with him that night was Billy Ficca, the drummer from Television.

I was way more stoked about playing on the same stage as Billy Ficca than Lach, if I’m honest. Antifolk is not really my thing, but from the time back in high school I bought an issue of Total Guitar with a full transcription of Marquee Moon in it, Television have very much been my thing.

The glory of Television is the lucidity of their arrangements. There is no padding, just drums, bass, two guitars, a vocal and that’s it. Everything is mixed and recorded dry, tight and close. You can hear every single note that is played, and, more importantly for our purposes today, every nuance of the drum performances.

Billy Ficca is one of the best. His playing is powerful and authoritative, yet also full of subtle details. He gives you a solid backbeat and so many cool hi-hat licks that it takes dozens of listens to absorb them all (especially when you’ve got Tom Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s superb soloing to take in, too). My favourite Ficca performances from Marquee Moon are Elevation and the title track, which features career-high performances from all involved, Ficca not least.

Billy’s playing on these songs is seriously inventive. Elevation features super-cool triplet fills on the hats, and an absolutely savage push in the choruses. Marquee Moon, meanwhile, features, well, everything. In its 10 and a half minutes, Ficca plays pretty much every conceivable idea on the drums. The verses are driven along by his funk-infused hi-hat work. The pre-chorus guitar-melody sections are lifted by his creative emphases on the cymbals. The choruses see Ficaa throwing in rapid-fire snare fills before bringing the band back round for another verse with whole-kit fills. During the long instrumental section that follows Verlaine’s solo, Ficca knows just when to swap from the hats to the ride, from the ride to the toms, from the toms to snare and from the snare to the brass. It’s compelling as all hell, and when it all breaks down after the “seagull” section and Ficca launches back into the verse groove, joined at first by Fred Smith’s bass and then Lloyd’s and Verlaine’s guitars, it’s a glorious moment.

A lot of attention is paid to Television’s guitarists, and rightly so: Verlaine and Lloyd were magnificent players, both technically accomplished and allergic to blues-rock cliche. But every great rock band from the Beatles and the Stones onwards have been built on a great rhythm section, and Television’s was one of the best. After the band ended, Ficca played with the Waitresses (yep, that’s him playing on Christmas Wrapping) – another great rhythm section.

television0.jpgTelevision: l-r Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

*Antifolk was briefly a big noise in above-ground publications. To the uninitiated, it may sound like lo-fi folk, or like folk played by punk musicians, and that’s not far wrong in many cases. But it’s easier to define as an attitude than an identifiable style of music. Lach began his antifolk nights after being unable to get shows at established folk clubs in New York in the mid-1980s and deciding that if no one else would give him a gig, he’d have to do it himself, so the key element of the genre name isn’t “folk”, but “anti”. That is, it’s about not fitting in and being proud of it, rather than striving to sound a certain way.

Yo’s music at the time had more to do with country and Leonard Cohen, but the antifolk association was certainly useful. My involvement with GDoS lasted about eight months, and the band crashed and burned within 18, but those were rarefied circles we moved in for a while, huh?

Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

heatmiser
Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta