March 23, 2012
I’d estimate that about 20-30% of the LPs & tapes I buy are by groups and projects I know next to nothing about. When faced with a mystery pile of clearance LPs, I enter some sort of self-destructive “dollar bin mania”, and dig til the dust hurts my eyes.
The mental checklist goes like this: Do I know the album? (no) Do I know the artist? (no) Do I at least know the label? (no) Is there something compelling about the album? (reptile brain says YES) Now, delineating WHAT that compelling thing is, and whether that THING translates into forking over 1-5 dollars is where the real science comes in. Simply nabbing an LP based on quirky art or a badass band photo is a sucker’s game. For me, if you’re on the fence about some slab of mystery wax, an instrumentation list always tips the scales towards “horde”. If you get a solid list of instruments (cross referenced with the year and country of origin, natch), you can usually get at least a ghostly impression of the sound-palette inside, and let your imagination do the rest. As far as personal inclinations go, if there’s at least a drum machine involved, you’re in the ballpark.
This post is an attempt to distill the best of the far too many LPs I’ve accrued through this admittedly half-baked method into a few choice tracks of true NON-STANDARD genius. And yes, they all have drum machines (i think?)
The first track is off the 1983 album “Pop Eyes” by Danielle Dax, a total hidden gem in the underground post-punk/outsider/home-taper canon. Though she had a reasonably successful pop career in the years to follow, the album this track appears on was recorded entirely by Ms. Dax, on gear such as tapes, sax, bass, and 808 (which features prominently here). This meandering but beat-driven track comes straight off the dome, with no real structure to speak of, but plenty of weirdo Fem energy. Eastern sax motifs, GOA-style diva vocals, and liquid funk guitar(??) all coalesce over incessant drum machine claptrap for a bizarrely smooth trip.
Up next are two cuts from Benjamin Lew and Steven Brown, a duo who recorded 2 albums for the Belgian Crammed Discs label in the early 80s. On the first track, both play a variety of reeds, hand percussion, synths and rhythm boxes in a contemplative, melancholy mode that’s totally unique. Straddling the territories of minimal electronic music and 20th century classical, the subtly textured melodies and clunking beat approach eno/riley levels of sublime ambience. The second track throws you from the country to the urban jungle, with all manner of ethnic percussion and radio detritus giving way to full on post-industrial tribalism. All executed with a composer’s restraint, never resorting to sheer power where pure moods will do.
Thought I’d close with the one straight-up dancefloor ripper out of this uneven batch. When I picked up the 1988 album “Rorschach Testing” by Click Click (again, based solely on instrument listings), I expected icy synth pop or new wave, but what I got was much more exciting. Playing what can only be described as “True EBM”, the tracks on this LP are a perfect encapsulation of everything that’s good about an extremely spotty subgenre. With a pleading vocal style, dark ensemble synth playing, and amazingly layered machine rhythms, they just throw down in a way that’s totally enticing. No cheese, all meat.