Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cover Your Tracks: The Wedding Present, "Falling"

I never watched Twin Peaks since I've never been a fan of David Lynch. This has more to do with my general indifference toward film and television, though—music comes first for me, and sitting through slow American surrealism is not my cup of sweet tea. I will admit to liking the haunting theme song of the cult TV show, though, and while the vocal version, a 1990 hit for Julee Cruise, is so ethereal that it threatens to evaporate, it's still pretty, a good example of what the Cocteau Twins could sound like if they had wanted to sell out.

This excellent cover is by the wonderful Wedding Present, one of the best British indie bands of the 80s and 90s ever to not-quite make it in America. Their early records featured furiously jangling guitars and a singer, David Gedge, whose strangled vocals sound like an angry, straight Morrissey who has been systematically dumped by every woman in the United Kingdom. Later records got louder (see 1991's gloriously frazzled, Steve Albini-recorded Seamonsters, one the all-time break-up albums), more polished, and catchier, but never made much of a splash in the States. Gedge's voice is certainly an acquired taste, and his theme rarely strays from L-O-V-E in its various stages of breakdown, but the level of quality is very high throughout, and Gedge also has a knack for picking great covers. He covered Pavement's "Box Elder" in 1990, when they were barely known, and was so fond of making excellent B-sides that in 1992, he decided to forgo a normal album release and instead release twelve singles that year, one each month, with an original on side A and a cover on side B. The Wedding Present version of "Falling" is the B-side of "Silver Shorts"; 1992's twelve singles have been compiled as The Hit Parade (get the 2003 edition), which is as good an introduction to the Wedding Present as any.

The Wedding Present cover Julee Cruise's "Falling":

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Swell Maps: The Peel Sessions

For those music fans inclined to the making of lists, naming and ranking favorites is one of the great useless pastimes, half fandom and half polemics masquerading as aesthetics. For those making lists about punk rock, it's polemics squared, if only because among the confrontational genres, punk is contrarian by nature—there cannot logically be a best punk band ever, as that achievement would probably not be considered “punk” by some angered malcontent. So I will not make a list of my favorite punk bands for the moment. Instead, I will discuss my favorite late 70s British cult band: the Swell Maps. They are not the best, certainly, or the most influential, or even the most obscure, or the punk-est, but their dim caterwauling and sloppy racket are, to me, the quintessence of inspired do-it-yourself before that slogan was even a slogan. A loose band of anywhere from three to six members, they wrote songs and made sounds and put them to tape at home, starting in the early 70s, not because they wanted hits or fame, but because they liked messing around and making noise. In fact, terming them ‘punk’ is probably a mistake; they were neither political nor even ideological, unless trying to write Can and Faust and T. Rex songs at home using limited technology and even more limited chops constitutes an ideology.

As a functioning, record-releasing band, they only lasted a few years, 1977-1980 to be more precise, and while they barely played any live shows, they were able to gain some press due to exposure by the British titan of independent music-making, John Peel, who allowed them to record three sessions for his radio show. They released four singles and two full-length LPs, first on their own Rather Records label and later on Rough Trade. After breaking up on an Italian tour in early 1980, principals Nikki Sudden, his brother Epic Soundtracks, and Jowe Head all went on to toil in the furrows of indie rock, usually with modest success at best; sadly, both Sudden and Soundtracks (né Adrian Nicholas Godfrey and Kevin Paul Godfrey) have since passed away.

For a band that released rather little during its floruit, the subsequent treatment of the Swell Maps catalogue shows signs of overcompilationism and botched-reissue-ism. At present their discography is confusing and distressing. I will discuss their official catalogue in a later posting; for now, I would like to right an egregious wrong and submit, for your listening pleasure and education, the three Peel Sessions which the Swell Maps recorded for John Peel. There are many classic Peel Sessions which have been released and admired by collectors of punk and post-punk noisemongery: at the top of the list are the mammoth and wonderful 6-CD sets by the Fall and the Wedding Present, but the briefer collections by the Gang of Four and the Only Ones are actually terrific introductions to those bands, as well as proof that they could play live-in-the-studio with precision and fire; the Only Ones have admitted that their Peel Sessions surpass their official releases.

The fact that the Maps’ three Peel Sessions have never been formally reissued is a shame, especially since together they make up forty-four splendid minutes. With buzzing shards of punk, eerie and ominous drones, and a slight obsession with World War II imagery, this is amateur music at its best. Any aficionado of the era probably already knows their albums and singles, but hearing these songs alive in the studio is a delight, especially since punk bands are often less well documented. There are also some surprises, with Lora Logic (of Essential Logic, X-Ray Spex, and the Raincoats) adding wild fun saxophone to Session #2, and two otherwise unreleased tracks (the PiL-ish “Bandits One Five” and the moody “Bleep And Booster Come Round For Tea”). If you’re a fan of Wire, the Fall, the Homosexuals, or the Pop Group, you will find something to enjoy here.

The Swell Maps: The Peel Sessions

Biggles [Richard Earl]: Guitar
Jowe Head [Stephen Bird]: Bass
Epic Soundtracks [Kevin Paul Godfrey]: Drums
Nikki Sudden [Adrian Nicholas Godfrey]: Guitar
Laura Logic: Saxophone on Vertical Slum, Forest Fire & Midget Submarines

Peel Session #1: 16 October 1978
1. Read About Seymour
2. Harmony In Your Bathroom
3. Full Moon In My Pocket/Blam/Full Moon Etc.
4. International Rescue

Peel Session #2: 15 May 1979
5. Vertical Slum
6. Forest Fire
7. Midget Submarines
8. Armadillo
9. Bandits One Five

Peel Session #3: 18 March 1980
10. Helicopter Spies/A Raincoat's Room
11. Let's Buy A Bridge
12. Bleep And Booster Come Round For Tea
13. Secret Island
14. Big Empty Field

NOTE: Tracks 5-9 were released on the 1981 double-LP rarities collection Whatever Happens Next…, which has never been issued on CD. Sound quality on these is far from ideal, but generally quite listenable. If you have better copies of any of these sessions, please let me know.

Download Swell Maps: Complete Peel Sessions

Cover Your Tracks: J Mascis, "Circle"

Recently some friends and I were having cocktails and huddling around an iPod, listening to nostalgic good-bad late 80s music. Edie Brickell came up, naturally, as anyone within earshot of a radio in 1989 would have had a hard time avoiding "What I Am". None of us had Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars on an iPod, but not because we're too cool or anything; I probably still have the cassette in a box somewhere. One tipsy late-night impulse download later (one wonders how much more revenue iTunes generates after sundown on weekends), we were groovin' to the New Bohemians, and the whole album made us feel like we were back in baggy sweaters and turtlenecks. Edie Brickell epitomized the more mainstream end of late 80s college rock: bands who wanted to make newish music but who loved their parents' record collections. So along with 10,000 Maniacs, Tracy Chapman, and the Indigo Girls, they crafted folksy rock for college students in turtlenecks and baggy sweaters. They also had hits on the radio, something similar-minded but more obscurantist, experimental bands like R.E.M. would do after to signing to major labels and ditching the experimental obscurantism.

"Circle" is not my favorite Edie Brickell song; I like "Nothing" and "Little Miss S." better. But whenever I throw on Edie Brickell (which happens approximately once a decade now), I enjoy the whole album, including the succinct "Circle", if only because this bouncy, tuneful little record did sound fresh at the time—if you don't believe me, check out the Top 40 hits from 1989 (Richard Marx, anyone?).

I don't know if Dinosaur Jr frontman J Mascis was listening to Edie Brickell at the time, but he's long had a penchant for unexpected covers (most famously, the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and Peter Frampton's "Show Me The Way"). Count this cover among those estimable remakes; Mascis wrings remorse and regret out of the lyrics, which seem like they would fit comfortably on more than half of his own catalogue of weepers. This version is from a recent Daytrotter session, recorded while Mascis is on tour in support of his crystalline new folk record, "Several Shades of Why".

J Mascis covers Edie Brickell + New Bohemians' "Circle":