Monday, July 24, 2006

Dharma Bums - Haywire

Contrary to popular belief, few '90s bands actually sounded like Pavement or Sebadoh. Sure, many recorded under the assumption that a recording budget had no correlation to -- and was perhaps even detrimental to -- good music, but the true source of all '90s bands was in fact R.E.M. This truth is obscured by the fact that R.E.M. had entered the '90s as something of an embarrassment, a reminder of alt-rockers' tree-hugging days spent thinking that maybe 10,000 Maniacs actually could solve the homeless problem with a hit song. Worse still, on their 1994 misfire Monsters, R.E.M. offered proof of their own irrelevancy by plagiarizing the genre that supplanted them, three long years after Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins heralded the new sound of a more angry, disillusioned generation.

But in 1988, R.E.M was still king. The Dharma Bums, although legendary in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, possessed neither the charm or media savvy that R.E.M. so effortlessly mutated into commercial stardom. That didn't stop the Bums from releasing two decent albums of what critics were then accurately calling "college rock" -- accurate, because absolutely no one else was listening to it. Still, the Dharma Bums' debut did produce one great song. The effortlessly brilliant "Haywire" stands as one of the most appealing R.E.M. ripoffs of the late '80s, an era that hardly had a shortage of them. The chiming guitar arpeggios and no-nonsense drumming is an easy enough feat to replicate, but what amazes still is the way in which Bums' singer Jeremy Wilson captures Stipe's ability to mix mumbled, vaguely poetic lyrics into a beguiling confection that pulls the listener in like a beautiful girl whispering at you across the table.

R.E.M. was influential in many ways, but Stipe's lyrical equivocacy was ultimately the band's most important innovation. The cryptic song titles and lyrics of both Pavement and Guided by Voices is undoubtably a testament to R.E.M.'s lingering fingerprints, even if neither was quick to admit it. In fact, when Pavement did finally acknowledge R.E.M.'s influence, my friends and I must have breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay," we thought, "I guess it's okay that I know every word of 'It's the End of the World as We Know It' after all." In 1988, the Dharma Bums wouldn't have been embarrased though. They'd ingested the R.E.M. formula so well that they could regurgitate it into an accidental masterpiece, a song from an era before R.E.M. could do no wrong.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Kurt Vile - Song for John in D

If Kurt Vile is as obscure and unknown as he seems, why is it that everyone I meet has heard of him? Of course people like Ariel Pink, curator of the absurd, and his outsider art teacher R. Stevie Moore know who he is. But at a recent Lilys and Human Television show, both bands made comments about him to me backstage. "He's a great guitarist," one bandmember said. "He's spotty, but he's got some good songs too," another musician said. And a quick google search reveals that this kid, who only releases handmade CD-R's and plays rarely, actually has an fan site. (Vile's own site has been "coming soon" for months.)

Okay, what is this? Some kind of conspiracy or a vast coincidence? I'm not sure, but it's true what they say: Vile can play the guitar. Like a bedroom version of John Fahey, Vile picks out delicate tunes on an acoustic guitar and decorates the scenery with fractured electronics and his pretty, fragile voice bouncing off the walls in the distance.

Last year, Vile sent me 6 CD-R's in the mail, all with scrappy, black-and-white artwork collages adorning the covers. I found that the music within was a bit spotty but Vile's lonely voice and nuanced guitar playing intrigued me. I attempted to wade through his dense catalog several times and every time I did, I kept coming back to "Song for John in D," a beautifully played song that gets more eerie every time I hear it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Whorl -- Maybe It's Better / Christmas -- Slumberland DRYL 11, 1992Whorl -- Maybe It's Better / Christmas -- Slumberland DRYL 11, 1992Hi everyone, it's Jay from :: clicky clicky music blog :: filling in a bit for Mr. Griffey while he is off contemplating the finer things in life like Steve Winwood. Anyway, as a rabid fan of the '90s indie rock Mr. Griffey so often concerns himself with, there are several things I feel compelled to share with you, but we'll start small.

At the heart of the knot of threads that lead back from so many great indie bands is the D.C. scene and acts such as Black Tambourine and Whorl, the latter of which we'll concern ourselves with today. Specifically I'd like to publicly declare my love for a song that close aquaintances know well is one of my favorites. "Maybe It's Better" is the A-side to the "Maybe It's Better"/"Christmas" single released on Slumberland in February 1992 as DRYL-11 (it was the single directly following the tactical nuclear strike that was DRYL-10, Velocity Girl's triumphant and unequalled "My Forgotten Favorite" [MP3 posted here with a ton of other Slumberland cuts). This was before Slumberland [new Epitonic page, Tweenet page] moved out west, when it was still based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Says so right on the label. Anyway, according to the insert that came with the single the song was recorded at Inner Ear studios in June 1991, and the lineup was Brian, Dan, Rob and Mike. You may recall that in the early '90s nobody had last names. The Mike in the lineup, if memory serves, is Michael Schulman, also a member of Black Tambourine [MySpace] and one of the principle owners of Slumberland. So there you go. Whorl, so far as we can tell, only ever issued five songs -- two singles and a compilation cut. But we haven't really exhaustively researched their output.

We were drawn to the this single at first because we had transferred to a new small liberal arts college in Connecticut and were confronted with an entire new library of music at their radio station to get through. As a big fan of the first two Lilys CDs, our first instinct was to plow through the available Slumberland and Spin-Art releases for gold. One of the biggest finds of course is "Maybe It's Better," which we've posted below. The song is the sound of a man broken by love, bobbing in the ebb of reverbed, jangly guitars and clattering drums, drowsy with drink, mumbling and slurring his heartache right into your ears:

"I know there's something wrong /
think it's kind of funny we lost our charm /
maybe I stayed too long."

And on and on. The song is brutally poignant, and if you've ever felt completely ill-equipped for success in a romantic relationship, it is also weirdly familiar. This song file is ripped from a tape recording of the vinyl single at WESU Middletown. As such there's a little extra crunching and popping, but just think of that as more evidence of Whorl's bottomless heartache.

Whorl -- "Maybe It's Better" -- DRYL-11, 1992, Slumberland Records

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Subset - Cabin Fever

Just after moving to Austin in 2000, I saw a TV news story about a young kid who decided to start his own record label, which he called Post-Parlo records. "This is newsworthy because...why?" I asked myself. Nevertheless, I checked out the label's website and heard the above track by Subset and made a mental note of it. Six years later, I'm wondering what ever happened to Subset.

Turns out that little information is available on the band beyond what can be found on the Post-Parlo website, which hasn't been updated since 2004. According to the site, the band was formed by Lindsey Simon (guitar, vocals) and Nathan Fish (bass, vocals) in 1999. After releasing a 7", they added Silver Scooter drummer Tom Hudson and recorded their debut CD, Overpass. After garnering some local radio play, the band dissappeared and have not been heard from since.

I recently picked up Overpass in a CD bargain bin and got to hear it for the first time in six years. Although "Cabin Fever" stands out, the remainder of the CD is clogged with mediocre, guitar-based indie rock that splits the difference between Death Cab for Cutie and REM. Patient listening yields a few rewards, like the almost rootsy "Strained" and the outdated charm of, uh, "Outdated," but some of the emo moves become grating quickly. Anybody know anything about Subset's whereabouts?