Day 1C: Way, Way West, Round One
And here comes the west subdivision with…
#1 Fuel, “Shimmer”
#16 Sawako, “April ~ from Sea Shell”
Fuel are a band who never managed to put out a listenable album. But when they were on, my word, the singles these guys were capable of cranking out. “Shimmer”, the first single from the debut album, promised the world, and even if they’ve never lived up to that (save with a handful of other singles), this is exactly the kind of song that’s so good I don’t understand why the public ever cottoned to it. (You’ll meet a few more singles like this later.) In general, the public’s taste in music is execrable (see above, eg., Stockholm vs. Kings of Leon), but every once in a while, they recognize something good when they hear it, and “Shimmer” was one of the “it”s for 1998. Fuel go up in the first round against a trio of Japanese sound sculptors. Sawako is an electronics/field recording artist who works out of both Tokyo and New York; as opposed to such field recording artists as Kiyoshi Mizutani and Eric La Casa, Sawako uses field recordings as the basis for ambient pieces that are almost trance-like. “Delicate” is a word I want to use to describe them. For this piece, she’s joined by Japanese guitar duo (as opposed to the San Francisco-based noisician who uses the same name) Radiosonde, which is comprised of Hayato Aoki and Takashi Tsuda (both of whom have also released solo albums for guitar). (You’ll be meeting the Japanese duo on Day 1J; the Frisco-based artist of the same name will have to wait until Day 2K.) The RNG, which is usually good at these things, stuck Fuel at the top of this subdivision, and to be fair to Fuel, “Shimmer” has been a longtime favorite on the mp3 player and other music outlets (it popped up tonight, coincidentally, on Pandora). But Sawako feels more right for this matchup for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Sawako takes the first round without a definable reason, and Fuel heads for the sidelines.
#8 Channel 3, “True West”
#9 Tricky, “Overcome”
This is the kind of matchup that makes me want to tear my hair out. Of course, (a) I don’t have any hair to tear out and (b) I specifically broke these up on time rather than genre in order to force these sorts of apples-and-oranges confrontations to make this a more incisive exercise in figuring out what it is about these songs in particular as opposed to the full artists’ catalogs that I enjoy, and finding commonality between two songs as radically different as Channel 3’s power-pop-punk classic “True West” and Tricky’s genre-defining “Overcome” (even if Tricky himself disavowed any connection to trip-hop and changed his style after critics started branding Maxinquaye with that moniker). CH3 started off as yet another LA hardcore band in the early years, but once they started turning their sound towards power-pop, they attracted the attention of, and then signed with, Enigma Records, one of the driving forces in what was at the time America’s nascent alt-rock scene; “True West” comes from “Airborne”, the first EP they released through Enigma. It keeps the hardcore attitude lyrically, but there’s a lot more musicianship to be found here than in their previous work, and it suits them very well. Meanwhile, Massive Attack alumnus Tricky split with his old crew in order to record Maxinquaye, one of the best urban contemporary albums of all time (whatever subgenre of UC you slide it into); Tricky and vocalist Martina Topley-Bird created something special here, full of soulful, sing-along tracks that musically range from the loungey “Overcome” to the driving “Brand New You’re Retro” and everything in between. My reason for going with Channel 3 in this contest is the most arbitrary you’ve seen so far—for years I was under the impression that Maxinquaye was entirely a one-man project, including the vocals, and that Tricky’s range included Topley-Bird’s. When I found out he had another vocalist working on the record, which didn’t happen for quite a while after it had gone into regular rotation at Goat Central, I felt (irrationally, I know) cheated in some way, and that pall has been cast over the album ever since. Hey, no one ever said this was going to be a fair fight. CH3 sail on to the second round.
#5 The Focus Group, “Danse & Atoms”
#12 Skinny Puppy, “Killing Game”
Another walkover—there is very little in this round that Skinny Puppy, with the single best song to come out in 1992, could not have overpowered with one hand tied behind their backs. The Focus Group, a project of artist Julian House (who has worked with bands like Sterolab and Primal Scream), takes the found-object/collage-style approach to making music (viz. the early work of Climax Golden Twins, for example, or imagine a less harsh Einstürzende Neubauten), and he does it very, very well, but man, it’s Skinny Puppy at their finest. You ran into the serial killer whilst hiding behind your first tree, Julian.
#4 Suicide, “Che”
#13 Devil Doll, “Bourbon in Your Eyes”
The obvious track to represent Suicide with in this competition would have been their terrifying ten-and-a-half-minute masterpiece “Frankie Teardrop”. But as much as I like Suicide, there’s no way over an eighth of the final product would end up being dedicated to a single band. (Otherwise, I’d have just said “disc two of Skyrim”.) The second choice, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, is “Che”–it’s a much more lightweight song, but when listening to shorter Suicide tracks, that seems to always be where I end up when making mixes. It goes up against Colleen Duffy, who adopts forties-femme-fatale persona Devil Doll when performing onstage. Here’s another act where a longer track would have probably been more appropriate (the seven-and-a-half minute closer to this album, “If I Died in Your Arms”), but choosing a shorter piece doesn’t feel like quite as much of a sacrifice where Devil Doll is concerned, and that’s ultimately the deciding factor in this matchup, which sends Devil Doll to Round Two and Vega/Rev to the bleachers.
Youtube informs me this was used in the trailer for the film The Place Beyond the Pines. That’s a helluva lot to live up to, even with Ryan Gosling…
#6 Of Swine and Swill, “Blurred Mosaic”
#11 Paul Sabu, “Cassie”
Of Swine and Swill’s greatest achievement is the eponymous track from the band’s sole album, a fifteen-minute monument that ranges from acoustic introspection to black ambient to jagged, catchy hard rock over the course of its length, and if you haven’t heard it, you gotta. “Blurred Mosaic” is an entirely different beast, that—I kid you not—would not sound entirely out of place on a Sade album. It’s up against cock-rocker Paul Sabu, the man behind the soundtrack to one of the eighties’ greatest cheesy movies, Hard Rock Zombies. “Cassie”, the movie’s love theme, is pretty much everything you expect from a cock-rock love song—it’s creepy as hell, it’s got a terrible keyboard riff in place of the guitar one would expect from an act like this, the lyrics are cheeseball city. I love every last second of it like my cat loves puking up hairballs on the carpet. Of Swine and Swill suffer from my once again lacking judgment in song choice, and Paul Sabu slips into the shadows and onto Round Two.
#3 GGFH, “Dead Inside”
#14 Body Count, “Cop Killer”
I probably picked the wrong GGFH track here—Ghost’s lyrics are even more ridiculous than usual (no one’s been able to get away with using the lyrics “creepy, crawly” since The Who)—but it doesn’t matter much. There’s little in GGFH’s entire body of work that could stand up to the controversial monster that is Body Count’s one hit. To be fair to Body Count, they should have probably had a bunch more hits—if you get past the fact that both the rampant profanity and much of the subject matter is inherently inimical to radio play. (But then, “Cop Killer” isn’t?) Controversy isn’t the only thing in Body Count’s corner here—this is as solid a slab of power metal as you’re likely to come across in the early nineties. Body Count sail through with no friction at all—something they’re entirely unused to.
#7 Skin Graft, “Regret”
#10 Rise Against, “A Life Less Frightening”
Skin Graft is the soundtrack to your nightmares, if your nightmares take place in a steel mill operating at 120% capacity. Wyatt Howland’s signature project has exactly one goal: to slam you back against the wall and flense your face off using nothing but sound. “Regret” is shorter than the average Skin Graft cut, but no less ferocious; high-pitched squealing punctuates staticky bursts of noise, and the whole is a very tasty stew indeed, if somewhat more crude than his recent efforts (this is from 2010’s Cancerous double CD set). It’s up against Rise Against, who are listenable enough, but when it comes right down to it, kind of annoying given the absolute lack of subtlety that permeates their lyrics. (Though I did pick “A Life Less Frightening” because it at least flirts with the idea of subtlety, at least in comparison to something like “To Them These Streets Belong”.) I can continue trying to justify this decision, or I can simply hand Skin Graft a pass to Round Two, so I think I will choose the latter.
#2 …and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, “Crowning of a Heart”
#15 Prurient, “Memory Repeating”
It doesn’t matter who you are, going up against Brooklyn-based Domincik Fernow in the first round—especially the blistering opener from 2007’s And Still, Wanting, one of the two or three (of dozens of) Prurient releases that consistently fights for the rank of favorite in my collection—would have been a kick in the face, but at least the RNG made this one easy for me; I like the idea of Austin’s …and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, in general, a lot better than I like the actual band, whose music seems to have paved the way for all those godawful hipster bands whose music adorns radio and hipper sports bars around the country. “Crowning of a Heart”, from the 2003 EP The Secret of Elena’s Tomb, was probably a bad choice here, in that it depicts this aspect of the band’s music exceptionally well; walls of feedback will pummel sensitive alterna-proto-hipster-rock every time, and Prurient roll on two Round Two.