IT’S IMMATERIAL – Life’s Hard and Then You Die (1986)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Julien Mansencal

When I was asked to review this album, I realized that I remember seeing the cover in record stores in the late ‘80’s, but I had no recollection of the music. The first thing that struck me is the incongruity between the expectations that the title and the “evil clown” album cover create, and the actual music coming out of the speakers.  Far from the sinister first impression, what you get is very melodic fairly laid back pop rock with a highly eclectic mix of influences ranging from folk to Celtic to country meshed into a coherent whole with some dark undertones.   I’m having a hard time making comparisons to any similar groups, frankly.  It is very much of its time (mid-80’s), but does not suffer for it.

The first song “Driving Away From Home”, evidently was a hit single in the UK. I must admit that my initial reaction was not positive, but by the end of the first listening I got to appreciate what these guys are doing – kind of Kerouac in Lancashire or Yorkshire. The singer does have a propensity to “talk sing” in a way that comes off a bit corny at times. The band seems to hail from Manchester, in northern England’s industrial rustbelt, and a lot of the lyrics reflect a theme of a difficult life in struggling post-industrial towns. “Happy Talk”, “The Sweet Life” and “Rope” reflect on this theme in various ways. The mood is gentle with a melancholic touch, but not morose.  Two songs, “Space” and “Ed’s Funky Diner” don’t work for me.  The latter was also a hit of sorts.  I appreciate what they’re doing – a kind of Waits – like cast of characters – but I just don’t care for it.  The slower songs work better.  “Festival Time” starts off sounding like it’s going to turn into Talking Heads’ “Cross-eyed and Painless” and ends up sounding like the carnival it describes – good one.  “Washing the Air” is a mostly instrumental piece with a James Bond guitar, and is another highlight.  The CD version, at least, ends with remixes of “Diner” (alluding to artist Edward Keinholz in the subtitle) and “Driving..”.

This one is one album that I didn’t immediately like, but definitely grew on me over a couple of listenings. I’m glad I gave it time. This not your average mid 80’s pop. There’s a lot of substance that rewards repeated listenings. THUMBS UP

THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282 – Strangers from the Universe (1994)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, whatever that ridiculous name must mean, is a little-known yet really interesting band from San Francisco, which might at first give the impression of being yet another late 80s – early 90s postpunk/alternative/indie/noise-rock/guitar act, much in the vein of Sonic Youth or Pavement and such. But don’t be fooled by that first impression, because at least on this record Thinking Fellers offer enough diversity, weirdness and creativity to escape that kind of pigeonholing. This album manages to combine bizarre atmospheric experiments with melodic fun in a uniquely quirky way. 

To be perfectly frank I have never heard of these guys before I was assigned to review this album of theirs, so I’m not sure whether it is representative of this band or not, but here is my take on it anyway: it rules! Tight, minimalistic and precise arrangements, interesting, but never overly poppy melodies and plenty of tasteful guitars! Indeed, the guitar playing is possibly the strongest point of the band, which is not surprising considering that it features three (!) guitarists. From atmospheric texture-creation to melodic soloing to distortion and weird noises – most of the sound here is created using guitars, with only minimal synths or percussion added here and there. That said, this is in no way ‘classic guitar rock’ – the songs have more of a post-punk vibe to them, with the production being kept to a lo-fi minimum and the vocalists not even trying to err… “sing” in any conventional sense. 

What’s more, the structure of the album is as precise as their playing – it alternates ‘real’ songs with experimental noise/ambient links which are all very different from each other – from the excellent drony ‘Bomber Pilot WWII’ that invokes the very images its title suggests to the slightly silly ‘Communication’ which is obviously just some random studio dabbling. But even if you’re not a fan of experimental noisemaking, these tracks are never longer than 2 minutes, so they never overstay their welcome. The actual songs are of course even better, ranging from power-pop (‘My Pal the Tortoise’) to melancholy folk-rock (‘Hundreds of Years’) to krautrockish explorations (‘Cup of Dreams’) to friggin’ lullabies (‘Noble Experiment’). My favorite track here, however, is the gorgeous ‘The Piston and the Shaft’ – easily the most heavily-produced song on the album, with amazing interplay of the bass and several guitars and even some semblance of vocal harmonies in the chorus. This kind of song could make a fine radio hit too, if it weren’t for the dark lyrical matter (and maybe it WAS a radio hit on some alt-rock stations for all I know).

However, probably none of the above descriptions will give you any true impression about what ‘Strangers from the Universe’ actually sounds like. And even if I say that this is a weird cross between geometric guitar precision of Wire, noisy sincerity of The Fall and warped songwriting of The Residents, with a heavy dose of Can and Neu to boot, that still wouldn’t be even close to what you’ll actually hear. So if the named artists mean anything good to you, you’d better check this album out, I daresay it’s going to pleasantly surprise all lovers of indie-rock with experimental edge. 

THE ROCHES – The Roches (1979)

Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Jeremiah Methven

I remember the Roches & at least some bits of their first album from “the days” primarily because of their affiliation with Robert Fripp (he produced the album and plays a few guitar parts. Tony Levin plays on it too. Terre Roche did some vocals on Fripp’s “Exposure” album of the same year). Because of this association and also because they played in the downtown NYC clubs they somehow managed to find a place in the punk/new wave / underground music scene, even though their music didn’t fit the mold. Though not “punk” in their sound in any way, listening to this album (and this the only one of their albums I’ve heard), it’s not hard to see why this would appeal to an “alternative” audience.

The music centers around the harmonies of the three Roche sisters. Maggie sings in a surprisingly deep contralto voice. Terre sings in a high register, and Suzzie is in the middle. The lead is mostly alternated between Suzzie and Terre, but it’s not always easy to discern who’s singing what (except for Maggie’s parts). The individual voices are not really outstanding on their own, but the sum is definitely greater than the parts. The harmonies range from sweet and ethereal to (presumably deliberately) off-key and silly, perfectly matching the subject matter. The instrumentation is sparse and perfectly complements the vocals, never getting in the way. Fripp plays a few leads in his signature style. The Fripp treatment is most notable on “Hammond Song”.

The album starts off with the autobiographical “We”, which I guarantee will be a total earworm in your head for days after hearing it (“We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzie”…there it goes again!). The harmonies here are deliberately silly and somewhat childish sounding to match the humorous lyrics. Silly, but fun stuff. The next song, ““Hammond Song” is where they really start to show their chops, and is one of the highlights of the album. The harmonies range from ethereal to an almost avant-garde dissonance which is accentuated by Fripp’s guitar and Frippertronic atmospherics. “The Troubles” makes reference to the then-current violent conflict in the middle of silly lyrics about banalities like “hope they have health food in Ireland”. “Mr. Sellack” for all its witty comments about menial work, is ultimately about abandoned dreams. “The Married Men” is the most endearing song about adultery that I can think of. “The Train” suggests the barriers we put up around ourselves (perhaps necessarily) in public – “Can’t we have a party? Would he rather have a party?/After all we have to sit here and he’s even drinking a beer/ I want to ask him what’s his name/ But I can’t ’cause I’m so afraid of the man on the train” and “Pretty and High” is another highlight, but there are no weak ones. The lyrics are witty and engaging, but never didactic or obvious, as folkies tend to be all too often . They leave a lot of room for ambiguity and interpretation. Overall a definite thumbs up.

SLAPP HAPPY / HENRY COW – Desperate Straights (1975)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Tracks: Some Questions About Hats, The Owl, A Worm Is At Work, Bad Alchemy, Europa, Desperate Straights, Riding Tigers, Apes in Capes, Strayed, Giants, Excerpt From The Messiah, In The Sickbay, Caucasian Lullaby

A merger. Two bands made this album together, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. And they were so happy with the results that they decided to merge after that. Maybe more bands should do so. The remnants of the Beatles and the Stones. A recipe for disastrous success.  I think not. It might solve a bass problem though.

Bands as corporations with a lifespan of centuries.

Prog pop. That’s the genre here, I just found out. I just found out this genre existed. So far I only knew of prog rock.

Indeed, do not expect “rock”. Slapp Happy will not “rock you” on this album. A comforting thought when it comes to prog.

The general mood on this album is reflective and cerebral. And it is very artsy.

The first song “Some questions about hats” took me to Weimar. Kurtweilland. Hanns Eislerland. German Expressionism. That sets the tone for most of the songs on this album. The music is largely staccato, with intricate signatures and unexpected melodic twists. The instruments used on these tracks are for the most part acoustic; piano, bass guitar and drums are the main instruments. The arrangements then are filled out with violins, woodwinds, trumpets and the occasional electric guitar and Wurlitzer. Dagmar Krause uses her plainsong voice in a high register and the supposedly poetic lyrics are provided by Peter Blegvad. By the way, to simply state Weimar would be incorrect as I hear different influences in these songs as well, like Canterbury style prog, (free)jazz and John Cage’ compositions for piano, prepared or raw.

I’ll categorize these tracks as avant-garde Weimar chamber pop. In them on first hearing everything sounded a bit askew but once I got used to the sound I found these generally short pieces quite beautiful in an offbeat way. Slapp Happy / Henry Cow obviously knew what they were doing without the apparent urge to impress with prowess. In fact, overall the record sounds quite lean. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence on the more melodic post-punk experimentalists like Tuxedomoon and Minimal Compact and even nineties alternative rock acts like dEUS and Tindersticks. It must be my imagination but sometimes the violin parts even remind me of those in “Different Trains” by Steve Reich.

All the non-instrumental tracks, bar one, are sung by Dagmar Krause. Her voice took me some time to get used to. It is more in the European classical / cabaret style than pop/rock. She has a funny german accent and I can easily imagine her singing the “Dreigrosschenoper”. At times though she sounds shrill and quivering, especially in the high register. Witchy and childish at times. On first hearing “Some questions about hats” I thought: “well, surely this must be the wicked witch from the East”. However for the most part she sounds quite pleasant even if she’s no Lotte Lenya. On the contrary in  “Excerpt From The Messiah” she even sounds like Yoko Ono, complete with Onowarblings. Not that I mind one bit, of course.

Not all songs live in Weimar however and there are four that sound quite differently. The title track is a beautiful piano dominated instrumental that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late sixties Beach Boys album. “Strayed” is a poppy, clean guitar driven song, sung by Peter Blegvad, that on first hearing sounds quite conventional until you realize it is actually a bossa nova and could well have been produced in the nineties by let’s say Cake. The aforementioned “Excerpt From The Messiah” (a Händel cover, no less) is the most rockist track complete with distorted electric guitars. Still this is no shit that stinks. It has a great line though: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”. I suppose that’s about Jesus Christ. Finally the last track consists almost entirely  of slowly ascending lonely notes on the piano and woodwinds without reaching a conclusion. This is music of lonesome foghorns that blow, solitary walks through deserted industrial wastelands and fortified coastal regions or as in my case bicycle rides in the rain through the polder with windmills and pumping stations at night. It works. Spooky.

Do I know some people who would hate this album? Yes I do. Those who do not like art in their music and they are legion. In fact, I intend to use this album to evacuate my birthday party  in December.

It’s a good album though and quite unlike any other I heard so far. If you are exhausted by Zarah Leander, Suzi Quatro, Li’l Kim and Amanda Lear you need this album. Even if it might take you some effort. That’s okay. I do not approve of laziness.

Oh, so  do I like it? I do, even if at times it’s a bit too cerebral to actually love. It is good. This is paletti. Pico bello. Sombrero!

Favorite tracks: “The Owl”, “A Worm Is At Work”, “Desperate Straights”, “Strayed” and “Caucasian Lullaby”.