The box on the van floor.

Our band vehicle is a Chevy van, from sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, with no inspection sticker and no city sticker. A crack runs vertically down the passenger side of the front windshield, and whoever is riding shotgun has to roll down their window and use the outside door handle if they want to get out. Driving it is a careful affair, because getting pulled over would yield the driver three or four tickets instead of the usual one. This is especially true in Fairfax County, where the van has something like $700 worth of unpaid parking tickets accrued to it. We stay under the speed limit in Fairfax County.

Of course, when I talk about “our band vehicle,” I’m making it sound like I’m in the band. I’m not. In fact, the recent trip I took with them as a roadie was my first time even serving in that capacity. It’s easy to feel like part of the family with them, though—there’s a very communal vibe in the way they operate as a band, and there are always a bunch of people who aren’t playing any music along with them when they travel out of town. For example, on this trip, there were eight of us in the crew, only four of which are actually in the band.

On the way up to DC, where the show was, I rode shotgun and made most of the decisions about what we were going to listen to. The van doesn’t have a CD player, as befits its advanced age, but it does have a tape deck. Recently, Kevin found a box of tapes at his parents’ house that he donated to the van so that there’d be plenty of stuff to listen to during tours. The box apparently belonged to Kevin’s older brother, who is also involved in the underground punk scene, has been in a few reasonably well-known bands, and in fact plays the same instrument Kevin does. It’s always obvious that he loves his brother, but it must be a pain in the ass living in that kind of shadow.

Anyway, the box is full of all kinds of random stuff. Evidently, Kevin’s brother has eclectic tastes. There are several early demos by mid-90s era DC area bands, including what might be the first Frodus release. The awful Bad Brains cassette from the late 80s with the homophobic song on it is in there. There are even two different Iceburn tapes—and all of this is just scratching the surface. Also, before we even got a chance to take the box on tour, a travelling punk girl who had crashed at the Richmond house for a few days dumpstered a bunch of random stuff that she donated to the house, including a stack of half a dozen or so tapes. There was an Aphex Twin tape that I immediately swiped, but the rest got thrown into the box.

A lot of the stuff in the box is totally sweet when you’re just looking at it and thinking about carrying it on tour, but once you’re on the road, you notice the glaring holes in the collection more than anything else. Whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s a good chance that it’s not there. I ran into this problem while DJing on the way up. I played Helmet and Avail, and Jamie picked out a tape by Mass Movement of the Moth, who are friends of their band from DC. But I would have grabbed some other things if I’d had the choice.

It’s OK though, because even though I’d heard almost everything in the box, most of it was stuff I hadn’t listened to in a long time. The new context this re-introduction provided pointed out factors about old albums that I had never noticed before. The Helmet tape, “Strap It On”, reminded me of their emphasis on syncopation, often created through use of guitar parts that were in a completely different time signature than the drum parts. Every four bars, they’d end at the same time, but what you didn’t notice was that the drums had played the part one more or less time than the guitars did. Meanwhile, I discovered that the Iceburn album “Poetry of Fire”, which I own on vinyl, contained a bunch of new material on cassette—the entire vinyl album, both sides, were on side one of the cassette, while side two featured some live performances I’d never heard before. I got to listen to that in the morning.

The show went well, though it showed me once again the rough road my friends had had to follow during their three years of existence as a DC area band. They played with a youthcrew hardcore band whose fans, for the most part, weren’t interested in their brand of balls-out rock n’ roll chaos. Youthcrew, I realized, is a very formalized style of music, allowing for little experiementation or variation in songwriting. Kids who come out to youthcrew shows aren’t there to see something new and different, something they’ve never seen before. Rather than deriving excitement from the pushing of boundaries, they derive excitement from the continual recycling of time-honored (some might say time-worn) techniques. For them, a band doing something they like for the millionth time is just as exciting as the band that did it the first time, perhaps moreso. This is fine for them, I suppose, but I can’t relate to it in any way. I might have enjoyed them more if I was still 18, but those days for me are long gone.

After the show, we made our way back to Kevin’s girlfriend Andie’s place, where we all slept on sleeping bags, pillows and comforters laid down on her living room floor. We’d stopped for food on the way there, and by the time we got back to the apartment and prepared to go to sleep, it was 3 AM. In a little more than three hours, we all had to be up to take Jojo to Dulles Airport. Her flight left at 9 AM, which meant she had to be there at 7:30. I was the only one who hadn’t been drinking the night before, and therefore was going to be the only one really capable of operating a motor vehicle after three hours of sleep on a hardwood floor. Eric sat shotgun in the van and told me how to get from where we were (somewhere in Northwest DC) to Dulles Airport. We dropped Jojo off at 7:35 in front of the Delta Airlines gate, and she and Eric spent a few minutes saying their goodbyes (they’ve been dating for a couple of years now). It’s not going to be the same at the band house without her around. Even though she isn’t an actual member, she symbolizes a lot of what I love about their attitude as a band, at least to me. Sharing, friendly inclusiveness, and a lack of concern about material things, to be specific. If you’re around their house at dinner time, you’ll probably get fed, even if you don’t have any money to kick in for the food that’s being cooked, and that’s usually Jojo’s doing. She’s going to visit her family in San Diego for a couple weeks. I’ll miss her, though I’m sure Eric will miss her more.

It took us two hours to get out of Northern Virginia. We ran full-force into rush hour traffic, and every shortcut we tried to take was just as clogged and slow-moving as our original route. Once we got onto the Beltway, I knew where I was going, and Eric joined Jamie, who was already sleeping in the back of the van. I couldn’t go to sleep, though—I was supposed to be at work at 10. I wasn’t going to make it, but I had to get there as soon as I could.

Since no one else was up, I had full control of the music, and after the Minor Threat tape Eric put on ran out, I pulled out both Iceburn tapes that were in the box. “Sphinx”, from “Meditavolutions”, led into a live version of “Poem of Fire” that turned into a Black Sabbath covers medley by the end. I wound that tape to the end of the side by hand since the fast-forward and rewind on the van’s tape deck are both broken, listening to radio static and watching for cops while I did so.

Iceburn are some sort of hybrid cross between improvisational jazz and dark, heavy hardcore. Their entire sound seems to speak of psychedelic drug trips and thick marijuana haze, which makes it all the more surprising that their records came out in the early 90s on Revelation Records, home of Youth of Today and all of those other late 80s New York straight-edge bands. At the time they were active, Iceburn were extremely polarizing, and it seemed like way more people hated them than loved them. Despite that apparent lack of commercial viability, Revelation continued to release anything they wanted to give them, even after their roster expanded from three to first five, then seven members, some of whom played jazz instruments such as tenor sax. Their final record, the one with seven members, was attributed to “The Iceburn Collective”, and was over an hour long. Its centerpiece, “Sphinx”, is 22 minutes long and goes from quiet jazz interludes to pounding, off-time brutality. I can’t help but wonder whether they’d be universally loved in today’s far more experimental hardcore scene, or if it’s their connection with Revelation that keeps them from enjoying a rediscovery as a seminal early influence.

Either way, it’s fascinating listening, but even that wasn’t enough to keep me from flagging on the 90 minute drive home. When I first wake up, even if I’m determined to roll over and go back to sleep, I always stay wide awake for at least an hour. This was just as true of this morning as any other, but by the time we finally made it out of the hated Northern Virginia area and onto 95 South, I had been up for three hours, and was starting to drag. Soon, I was fighting sleep, finding my eyes closing of their own accord. I eventually had to stop at a rest area, just to use the bathroom and hopefully revive myself by walking around for a few minutes. Jamie woke up as we pulled in and joined me while I was buying a drink from the vending area. We pooled our silver coins and found enough to get each of us a drink—him a water, and me a Diet Pepsi (I needed the caffeine).

When we got back into the van, he dug into the box and found a Dirty Three tape that had been part of the traveling girl’s dumpster haul. I’d never heard them, but he said it would be in keeping with my Iceburn-themed morning. Sure enough, it was. Their music is violin-based instrumentals, jazzy at times, heavy at others, always sounding at least somewhat improvised. It was perfect when we pulled back into town, during that moment when you slow down after hitting the exit ramp, and what you were straining to hear over the blowing air through the windows suddenly rises in volume and fills the entire van. In the moments before someone reaches to turn it down, it’s beautiful. It feels like someone is welcoming you home, or at least to a gas station or rest area. Somewhere you can at least get out of the van for a few minutes.


Dub without bliss.

A couple of years ago, I became fascinated by dub reggae. I'd gotten into it because of the descriptions I read of it before I'd ever heard more than a song or two. It sounded amazing; the thought of instruments slipping into and out of the mix at completely random intervals, layers of percussive sound effects and clipped vocal phrases, and under it all, a dark solid groove that flowed on and on for what seemed like forever. I couldn't wait to hear it, and began accumulating the work of Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby whenever I could. Unfortunately, though, when I listened to it, it didn't have quite the visceral appeal that the descriptions I'd read beforehand led me to expect. What I'd failed to plan for was the fact that, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much layering and deconstructing you do. Reggae is a lazy, drug-fueled blissout of a genre, and nothing all that dark or mysterious will ever come from any project that uses reggae as a fundamental building block.

Recently, though, I found myself searching once again for the heart of darkness I'd originally sought in dub reggae. I got out my King Tubby CDs due to the influence of Lester Bangs's lengthy article on his late 70s stay in Jamaica (reprinted in "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader", which I was reading for the third time), and was once again left slightly cold. Don't get me wrong, dub reggae is good stuff. It's just never exactly what I'm looking for when I reach for it.

This could have ended up being just another time where I went looking for a sound that I didn't quite find, and nothing more, but for the fact that another article in the Lester Bangs book extensively discussed Public Image Ltd's second album, "Metal Box." I don't own the original British edition, which was, as you might expect from the name, released in a circular metal canister containing three 45 rpm 12 inches. However, I do own its American counterpart, "Second Edition", a more conventional double album, and it had been a while since I listened to it. So after playing the dub CDs I own for an hour or so, I put on "Second Edition."

That's when I had an epiphany. I've owned this album for at least half a dozen years, purchasing it used for $5 on a shopping trip to Washington DC with an old girlfriend. However, I've never listened to it all that often, and I guess that's why it wasn't until a few days ago that I realized just how fundamentally linked the entire sound of "Second Edition" and almost all of the early PiL material really is to dub reggae.

When a lot of people think of Public Image Ltd, I'm sure that they think, "Oh, Johnny Rotten's band after The Sex Pistols. From what I've heard, it's bullshit new wave dance music." This dismissal is understandable if all people have heard is their post-1985 material, beginning with "Album" (aka "Cassette", aka "Compact Disc"). However, the original lineup of PiL also included guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble, and they were every bit as important to the band as John Lydon ever was. A good illustration of this fact: "Greatest Hits So Far," their singles compilation released in 1990. It's in chronological order, and the first four songs are excellent. After those songs, Wobble left the band. The next two songs are decent if not great. After those songs, Levene left the band. The remaining eight songs on the album suck. In this article, I will only be concerning myself with the work of PiL's original lineup.

The linkage with dub reggae that I detected in "Second Edition", though not as pronounced, is easy to perceive even as early on as their debut album, "Public Image", aka "First Issue." This entire album is ahead of its time. Released in late 1978, only months after "Never Mind The Bollocks" (and before Sid Vicious's death put an end to Malcolm McLaren's ridiculous charade of a post-Rotten Pistols), Public Image Ltd's debut introduced them as a band who were obviously punk in behavior but, when judged solely by their sound, seemed like something else entirely. Jah Wobble was the heart of their sound in the early years; having been recruited by John Lydon from a childhood circle of friends, Wobble had never played bass before joining PiL. Unlike Sid Vicious, who never really bothered to learn, Wobble quickly created a distinct style that mostly involved playing the same complex figures over and over, weaving a sinuous rhythm through nearly invisible spaces in the airtight, rock-solid drumming.

At first, this was nothing more than a backdrop for Lydon's venomous ranting and Keith Levene's jagged, droning chord structures (see "Religion" and the audio endurance test of 9 minute album opener "Theme"), and much of the material on "Public Image" sounds more like The Birthday Party than anything else (though it prefigures that band by at least two years). However, the second half of the album, which begins with early PiL's one pop moment, "Public Image", and continues into "Low Life" and "Attack", gives indications of what was to come. "Low Life" and "Attack" were both recorded on the cheap, when the album's release date was fast approaching and the hastily formed PiL were low on usable material. Having been written later than the rest of the album, Wobble's basslines indicate progress towards their final form as they'd appear on "Metal Box."

"Public Image" ends with a 13-minute track called "Fodderstompf", which is both the album's most and least punk rock moment. In a move that frustrated their label, this song was tacked onto the end of the album just to make it long enough for release. It's really just a disco-ish rhythm track with Jah Wobble screaming "We only wanted to be loved!" and other such nonsense overtop in a ridiculous, high-pitched Cockney voice (which, in fairness to him, may be how he actually talks). The label gritted their teeth and released it anyway, only to have the song become a surprise hit on the dance floor of Studio 54, where the cokeheads and drag queens delighted in screaming along with Wobble. Certainly, no one had expected that.

"Metal Box" showed a great deal of evolution on the part of the entire band. The place where this was most obvious was on "Swan Lake," which opens side two of "Second Edition". This song had already been released as a single the year before, under the name "Death Disco". Now it reappeared in a longer, more intense version. As Lydon sang lyrics he'd written for his mother, who was at the time dying of cancer ("Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking on a bed/Flowers rotting dead"), and Wobble and drummer Richard Dudanski lay down an impenetrable groove that is both heavy and funky, Keith Levene layers tracks of ambient synth lines and choppy, staccato guitars that overlap each other and fade into and out of the mix. After a while, the vocals start mutating as well, with tracks of echo appearing at points where there's nothing for them to be echoing from, speeding up and slowing down and harmonizing with keyboard tracks that also seem manipulated somehow. By the end of the song, even the instrument levels begin haphazardly changing, in a way that is nothing like the dropout effects used in dub but calls them to mind nonetheless. Underneath it all, Wobble and Dudanski continue churning along at full steam, until finally the whole song stops as if the tape were cut with scissors.

The next thing you hear, only a second later, is the squelching sound of a pause button being released, as "Poptones" begins in mid-measure. On this song, Lydon does more of his proto-Birthday Party droning and howling, with Levene using creepy-sounding minor chords and arpeggios that call to mind Joy Division. It's scary and hypnotic, and gives Wobble's reliable walking funk bassline a scary edge that ratchets up the tension until you want to scream. Lydon never does, though. At points, he twists his voice upwards until he almost sounds like a little girl doing her best witch impersonation while playing in the backyard some Saturday afternoon, but that's the closest it gets. The song doesn't so much end as trail off, all of the musicians faltering to a stop as if someone has gestured to them through a studio window to cut it off. You get the feeling that they could have played the song all day if asked.

A lot of the songs on this album are so hypnotic and flowing that it seems like PiL could have played them for 20 minutes, Indeed, maybe they did exactly that. With all the fade-ins and fade-outs that show up on "Second Edition", who's to know? When "Careering" begins, a moment after "Poptones"'s anti-climactic finish, in mid-measure, it only feeds this impression further. It opens on a wash of ambient synths that make it sound like a spaceship lowering itself to earth, then quickly transforming itself into a fast car silently gliding down a highway far after midnight. The synths continue with their ambient wash throughout the song, mixing with the furious-as-usual rhythm section to create a solid whole. There is no guitar to speak of on the song, so the entire foreground of the mix is given over to strange sound effects, with Lydon's voice hovering somewhere overtop of it all.

And this is where I find what I was always looking for with dub reggae. Babies screaming and what sound like pistol shots mix with synth-generated spaceship noises and an incredibly solid, hypnotic groove. But this is no reggae blissout: Public Image Ltd are not far removed from the snarling origins of British punk rock, and have the same bitter, reactionary anger that fueled that movement's initial burst of creativity running through their veins. On "Metal Box" aka "Second Edition", they found a way to combine funk grooves with the burning heart of darkness that could never have taken root in reggae, to get people dancing without sacrificing the ability to exorcise dark torrents of emotion. It's a shame that this classic PiL lineup lasted for such a short time, but they created one true masterpiece and that's more than most bands ever get.


Exhuming The Spinanes.

Got a package today with 8 CDs in it; they were sold to me by a guy I know exclusively from the internet, who wanted to get rid of a bunch of stuff since he was moving. I sent him $24 and now, a couple weeks later, a whole bunch of new music all shows up at once. One record I got from him was "Manos" by The Spinanes, a band that I remembered from my mid-90s indie pop fan days as being pretty good, but whom I hadn't heard in some unspecified number of years. Surprisingly, out of everything that the guy sent me (including a few albums I was a good bit more excited about owning), it's been this CD that has captivated my attention. So I figured I'd sign on here and tell all of you about it.

I'm pretty sure almost nobody remembers The Spinanes at this late date. It's kind of understandable, since they've been broken up for over five years, and didn't exactly have a high profile while they were together. That said, it's also quite unfortunate. It's tempting now, at this late date, to discuss The Spinanes in retroactive terms, to attempt to clarify what's good about their music by trying to get the first time listener to imagine the environment in which it was originally recorded. A decade ago, when "Manos" was released, The White Stripes and all of the other bands that were directly or indirectly inspired by them were years in the future, and the fact that The Spinanes were a two-piece with no bass player made them nearly unique within the broader context of indie rock (Beat Happening were also bassless, but their constant instrument-switching and primitive, childlike melodies put them on a completely different level than The Spinanes, both in style and execution). These days, such an arrangement seems like no big deal, and it's hard not to jump into the whole "but they were so ahead of their time!" line of defense. In fact, to do so would miss the point entirely; that point being how good The Spinanes are at writing songs. The answer is "very", which is why they have no need of a timeline-oriented justification. Even stripped of the context in which "Manos" was released slightly over a decade ago, it loses nothing; it's still an excellent pop record.

On the other hand, the fact that it is presented as a straightforward pop album does a lot to emphasize the stark, minimalist arrangement of the instrumentation. It's strange to hear a guitar line that would normally be doubled in a slightly lower register by bass guitar standing alone at the forefront of the mix. There's a strangeness to it that's absent in the music of bands like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Coachwhips, and the many others using this instrumental configuration today; where bands like those mentioned above pile on thick layers of distortion in order to allow their guitars to fill the space a bass would normally occupy, Rebecca Gates of The Spinanes uses only mild amounts of overdrive on her electric guitar. This leaves it sounding rather mannered and polished, and certainly not taking up any more room than it would in a larger band. The only contemporary thing I can really compare it to is Mary Timony's guitar work on "Ex Hex", another album recorded as a two-piece. But where Mary Timony twists her guitar into strange, psychedelic shapes, to the point where you barely notice the holes in the mix, Rebecca Gates plays it straight, relying on neither noise nor distraction to cover up for the lack of bass.

She leaves that job to drummer Scott Plouf. It was his drumming, even more than Gates's pleasantly melodic vocal lines and exuberant major-chord choruses, that first stood out to me upon listening to "Manos". His bass drum plants itself solidly in the forefront of the mix, forcing you to notice the underlying rhythms of the songs in a way that you wouldn't if there were a bass guitar there. His heavy footed playing is so powerful, so right, that it feels as if he's following the melodies of the songs on his bass drum, as if you'd be able to pick out the individual notes if you could only attune your hearing properly.

The songs on "Manos" all begin with this rock-solid foundation, and this is certainly a big part of why it sounds so great. However, giving credit where it's due requires the acknowledgement of Rebecca Gates's incredible pop songwriting. She's not the flashy type, and indeed, most of the songs here are quite understated in their subtle power. "Epiphany" starts with a bright, midtempo melody, accompanied by Gates's stellar vocals, and doesn't really go very far from that point at first. Rather than getting boring, as a relatively static song structure such as this one could in lesser hands, it lulls the listener into a pleasant reverie, which makes it all the more surprising when, two and a half minutes in, the song suddenly builds to a more powerful chorus. In reality, the shift in dynamic is small and doesn't seem like it should have such an impact, but it does, and this is entirely by design.

This same attention to detail shows up in other places on the album, as on the chorus of "Uneasy", where the guitar changes from the choppy sound it's had on the verses to cleaner, more melodic strumming, just as Gates sings, "try a little tenderness." "Dangle" is not too different from any other song on the album, but the minor chords that drift into the verses illustrate the melancholy of the song's lyrics with a light, yet evocative touch.

The overall feeling of "Manos" is one of intimacy: minimalist arrangements make every vocal nuance, every drum hit stand out, as if each minor decision made in the album's performance is communicating a message to the listener. At the same time, The Spinanes' music has the power to fill a room with warmth and light, enveloping the listener in its subtle but ultimately overwhelming beauty. How this band has become so obscure as they now are is a complete mystery to me.