“So much that I can’t say to you,” Mark Kozelek croons on “Drop,” a raw, ethereal epic toward the end of the Red House Painters’ peerless 1995 emotional leveler Ocean Beach. “My voice shakes from the hurt that I hide.” Of course, by this point in Kozelek’s career, it was actually very fucking difficult to believe that the sanguinary troubadour hid even a single bloody tear from his growing coterie of acolytes. (“I’d like to come home to see you and to catch your sickness by the bedside … but then you’d know how much I really need you” does not exactly scream holding back.)
Those who missed the glorious downward spiral the first time around can now catch up with the black cloud via 4AD’s gorgeous LP boxed-set reissue of the band’s long-out-of-print first four records—a three-year drone-to-folk journey full of beauty and brood unmatched before or since.
With Foil Deer, Speedy Ortiz fully owns its style, quirks and neuroses on a level that would have been unimaginable circa 2013’s Major Arcana. Retaining a charming, inside-out tunelessness, the Northampton, Mass., quartet—coyly enough—permits tinges of saccharine to crowd the sour, and displays a newly intuitive sense of dynamics.
That guitarist/primary songwriter Sadie Dupuis recognized the need for Betty Rizzo and Angie Tempura archetypes in mod-indie is a bonus. Even at their most confident, Throwing Muses or Helium would never have written as backhandedly aggro a hoodied She-Ra anthem as “Raising The Skate.” Her ever tack-sharp mixed metaphors flow like wine; crunchy “The Graduates,” anti-tempo “Zig” and shove punk-y “Swell Content” passive-aggressively teem with them.
Elsewhere, low-end and noise-funk reign on the turgid, uncharacteristic “Puffer,” while “Dvrk Wvrld” (an uncomfortable, stormy dirge that seems to revolve around a rape) might contain the most vulnerable lyrics Dupuis has ever written.
Recent chatter around the water cooler concerns the strides Tom Jenkinson has taken toward injecting harsher, more aggressive elements into his IDM/drum ‘n’ bass/break-beats/whathaveyou on the 14th Squarepusher full-length. Whether there’s a broader message of discontent with government, anger at the general state of the world or an aggressive midlife crisis bubbling under Damogen Furies (as usual, compositions are instrumental) is something only the man buried under all the gear knows, but the beats of “Kwang Bass” and “Kontenjaz” are more furious, head-spinning, clipped and cutting.
Simultaneously, hooks and melodies are employed that forage through the fury to knock on pop music’s backdoor (“Stor Eiglass”), essentially drawing flies with honey before pouring vinegar all over ’em. Jenkinson continues his adroitness at transforming disparate juxtapositions of R2-D2 blips and bloops, deep bass drops and masterfully processed keyboard duels into sonic sculptures that are futuristically dense and engagingly hip-shaking.
For a band that titles its album No Control, Turbo Fruits really seem to have their shit together. We’re loath to call No Control “mature”—the Fruits are still the same stoned goofballs they’ve always been—but this new record finds the band making the tightest, most focused rock tunes of its career.
The drug-fueled buffoonery takes a back seat to the tension between teenage kicks and adult concerns, passion and failure, love and confusion. There is nary a wasted moment on No Control, as the Fruits have become such a fine-tuned machine that each note and bar explodes out of the stereo. Songs like “Need To Know,” with its guitarmony-laden coda, and woozy lead single “Don’t Let Me Break Your Heart Again” burrow deep into the listener’s brain and bounce around for days.
This four-CD boxed set can’t and won’t do anything lofty like write the definitive history of a bountiful musical decade, nor will it become some sort of mythical portal into the ’80s. (Leave that to the films of John Hughes.) Which isn’t to say this well-researched and lovingly compiled collection doesn’t aim high or true, just that the likely target listeners—those who favored college radio over Winger during the Reagan era—will probably use the 82-song Left Of The Dial more as a trip down memory lane than as a textbook. That it has potential to be both makes it a success.
Virtually every expected ’80s post-punk/alterna-rock/underground name shows up on this boxed set, each sporting a relatively obvious song choice: the Smiths (“This Charming Man”), Violent Femmes (“Blister In The Sun”), Pixies (“Monkey Gone To Heaven”), Joy Division (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), R.E.M. (“Radio Free Europe”). These familiar—and rightfully canonized— songs act as a comely hook to experience some of the read-about-more-than-they’re-heard bands of the decade, from the Minutemen (whose “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” still seems oddly revolutionary) to X (“Johny Hit And Run Paulene” is from Los Angeles, the band’s unforgettable debut). The Replacements’ Let It Be (“I Will Dare” is featured here) will never move enough units.
Left Of The Dial also sports a number of tracks clearly inspired more by fuzzy nostalgia than objective importance. What other reason could there be to include Lone Justice, Green On Red or the Smithereens? And since we’re asking the tough questions: Where’s Elvis Costello, Spacemen 3, the Fall, Mekons, Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, Wire, 10,000 Maniacs and Soul Asylum?
But as Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum!” bumps up against the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday,” you have to wonder what, aside from the obvious timeframe, ties the often insanely disparate bunch together. From They Might Be Giants’ stiffly beautiful “Ana Ng” to the Stone Roses’ nearly perfect “She Bangs The Drums” to the Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes,” what unites these moments—with a few obvious exceptions for out-and-out experimentalism—are their contributions to the parameters of the pop song.
If ’70s punk set fire to the guidebook, those who came after salvaged what they liked and wrote new definitions over scorched pages. Non-mainstream rock splintered and spiraled in a dozen compelling directions, instigating a creative boom whose aftershocks still rumble and whose epicenter deserves the kind of revisit Left Of The Dial does its best to inspire.