So Off You're On Talya Cooper

I wrote these reviews for between 2008 and 2011. They all look at reissues or compilations of “classic” indie-rock and all address themes of youth and youthfulness; these records, perhaps, have merited over-packaged re-emergences perhaps because they crystallize their own of-being-young particularly well.

Music tends to succeed when it seems least calculated, when it sounds on the verge of completely collapsing into ineptitude or corn, but some weird ineffable energy holds it together. Maybe this is why there’s something inherently childish in playing in bands or writing about music—things are inevitably most exciting when the tension of their workings seem evident and when they elicit some kind of first-time feeling, whether a legitimate shock of new-ness or, secondarily a reminder of a first, transformative encounter. These may not have been the records that did so for you or me, but these records were made, meant to be listened by (& then described) by people who understand the sensation of a record changing a life.

In the blue notebook I carry around theoretically for great insights but actually for grocery lists I have nonetheless written this Luc Sante definition of nostalgia from Low Life: “a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety.” This, I think, well explains why, in 2011, at the height of ’90s-band reunions and resurgences, 30+-year-old dudes market, debate, and market debate over 19-year-old boys’ music and anger to the internet public. Also, I guess, why the motivation to figure out what made these records work but which cannot be recaptured emerges: don’t let our youth go to waste.

Thanks to Otis Hart, who edited all of these pieces.

Comet Gain – Broken Record Prayers (What’s Yr Rupture?)
Review published March 27, 2009

The crush of quotes in the liner notes of Comet Gain’s new singles/rarities compilation Broken Record Prayers reads entirely ‘90s, predating the studied minimalism of our Facebook profiles. The band compiled bon mots from their favorite writers and musicians with yearbook earnestness, the same frankness that led Comet Gain’s David Feck to sing “We found the sound of the underground and we felt so proud to be underground,” on “Ballad of a Mixtape.” It’s the language of zines, of un-ironic confessions that punk saves lives but fails to change the world.

There’s a weird circularity playing with Comet Gain’s re-emergence: the kids at the record store had never heard of them before their recent flurry of singles; the prior generation that ran college radio think of CG fondly, when they think of them at all. Comet Gain can’t help but seem a pre-internet band, one still from the era of zines and brick-and-mortar record stores, sharing your finds with your best friends and thinking yourselves the first to have discovered whoever. And now, yet again, with pretty much every record ever at anyone’s fingertips, with no one playing rock harboring the illusion that they’ve hit on something new, the sound of the underground reaches back to the Television Personalities or the Velvets or whoever first realized that pop and not-knowing-how-to-play-guitar-but-playing-loud-anyway made sense together – or, more importantly, that this sound works as a perfect vector for honesty.

On the songs compiled here (originally released between 1998 and 2008), Comet Gain sound almost exactly as they did on their first releases, with slightly more polished production and even better, catchier songwriting. Just as before, they blend snarly vocals and trebly-distorted guitars with a massive dose of twee, often evoking ‘60s-era pop, as on the Faces-esque cover of Deena Barnes’ “If You Ever Walk Out of My Life.” Perhaps because the songs were released over a long period of time and not written in one go, this is Comet Gain’s most consistent record.* Nearly every song has an instantly memorable melody; even the disco-beat dance jam “Love Without Lies” has a kind of nursery rhyme quality.

The lyrics address themselves mostly to some “you,” and – despite the sunny sound – describe disillusionment with both love and the revolutionary notions they once hoped their music could propagate. “I thought I could change the world this way,” Feck sings on “Beautiful Despair,” a refrain that appears throughout the album. “Brother On the Block” mocks bougie kids who want to radicalize the masses; other songs detail love’s intricacies and failings with eloquent, often cinematic images. The mostly spoken tracks that open and close the record, “Jack Nance Hair” and “Record Players,” end with the same refrains: that we have either "no ideals" or "torn ideals,” and with the (sarcastic? earnest?) imperative to “go home and listen to your crackly 45s in their stained sleeves” all night.

Comet Gain are an apt band for these troubled times. They couch resentment, disappointment and a deep pain at finding their ideals fraying as they age, all in undeniable pop songs with arpeggiated guitar leads, handclaps and Rachel Evans’ sweet, soft voice. Broken Record Prayers is a tattered testament to life before cynicism, like a used book with someone else’s ink beneath the most salient quotes.

*Actually, City Fallen Leaves is probably better.

Galaxie 500 – Today/On Fire/This Is Our Music
Review published July 28, 2010

In 2010, calling some band “youthful” likely foretells either a kowtow to its preternatural sophistication or a high-five to its feckless fun-loving. Both relentless innovation or focused partying imply some high level of energy. Kids! Consequently, just looking at the titles of Galaxie 500’s newly reissued-with-bonuses full-lengths — Today, On Fire, and This Is Our Music — gives one pause. There’s a disconnect between these records’ slow, sprawling consistency and the band’s explicitly stated interest in seizing the now; their signature song, after all, was a near-seven-minute cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste.” In an attempt to describe their sound, a generation of reviewers has probably scrambled to the thesaurus entry for “dreamy,” but possibly never to “urgency.” They just don’t sound young.

Funnily, the opening lines of their first single, “Tugboat,” are every bit as petulant as the punk songs Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang listened to in high school: “I don’t wanna stay at your party / I don’t wanna talk with your friends / I don’t wanna vote for your president.” Wareham repeats the line “There’s a place I’d like to be” over and over as the song’s chorus. It adds up to strange combination of attitude, innocence and insistence.

Galaxie 500’s songs all mostly sound the same, but it’s a counterintuitive sound. And yes, it’s dreamy. Martin Kramer’s production gives a sense at once of space and intimacy, a warmth reminiscent of Wareham heroes Spacemen 3. That said, a listener can never fully drift away, as Wareham’s reedy voice and weird falsetto drag a listener back to the here and now. Krukowski’s drums serve as a backing instrument as much as a rhythmic anchor, his off-kilter cymbal hits surprising in quiet moments. Yang’s bass parts hold more interest and surprise than Wareham’s rudimentary strum — until he plunges into long, remarkable solos, which tend to be as memorable as they are technically simple to play.

Performance, here, matters infinitely more than songwriting. Starting with very little musical experience or skill, they figured out what they wanted and how to do it, and for a very short period of time, they did it over and over. As a result, they’re one of few indie-rock bands to master cover songs; their slow-burning version of “Ceremony,” packaged here with On Fire, is classic. But their persistence in doing things their way extends farther than playing other people’s songs in the same style as they played their own.

Every song on On Fire, their best album, starts in exactly the same way, mostly even on the same chord, and all the songs follow the same arc, building dynamically, moving towards the upper limits of Wareham’s guitar neck and vocal range. A sax pipes up a couple times, Yang backing vocals emerge occasionally from the mix, but the more it goes on, the record just sounds more and more insistently like itself. No vocal hooks stick in one’s mind, and Wareham’s lyrics don’t offer any easy access points. Though there are a few near-catchy riffs one might latch onto, a listener has to accept the totality of what-Galaxie-500-is-up-to in order to appreciate the record. Though hardly combative music, it makes an arrogant, brash demand. This, as they say, is their music.

Galaxie 500 split acrimoniously after their brief career from about 1986 to 1991. Krukowski and Yang have made some lovely records over a long career as Damon & Naomi, and Wareham has had success in various bands, but neither party has done anything that’s burned quite as brightly as Galaxie 500. According to Pitchfork’s recent Galaxie 500 oral history, the two factions still really dislike each other and have no intention to reunite. Immature? It seems fitting.

Sebadoh – Bakesale (Sub Pop)
Review published August 3, 2011

Kathleen Hanna is basically canonized. Teen bloggers spend their Internet time adoringly mining riot grrrl fashion and manifestos. One of the country’s most exciting bands plays Mudhoney riff rip-offs, and Prurient and Zola Jesus would have us reclaim Nine Inch Nails for its cathartic power. In the face of all that, here’s a corrective to this nostalgia: Sebadoh’s 1994 “120 Minutes” appearance to promote Bakesale. Ungodly stoned, clad in baggy clothes that scream “mom’s basement,” each member seems entirely on a different vibe, with Lou Barlow bouncing around and overly psyched, Jason Lowenstein stock-still, new-ish drummer Bob Fay kind of too pro. Their collective sloppiness and overall dearth of cool is so un-practiced, though; they genuinely hoped to break Nirvana-style with this record, and it’s incredible — and yes, endearing — to think that in pre-Internet time, a band would introduce themselves to a massive TV audience like this. That jarring honesty brands Sebadoh, and makes Bakesale the great record that it is.

Particularly in this re-mastering, Bakesale sounds less compressed than comparable records of its era, with plenty of space for Barlow’s bright, off-kilter arpeggios. The recording also brings the vocals to the mix’s forefront in a way that makes the lyrics impossible to ignore. Proper emo brims alternately with self-pity and blame, but Sebadoh comes across as circumspect. They don’t harbor secret, undying grudges against the opposite sex for their misery behind their sloppy exteriors; they’re nervous and confused, as wary of their own inclinations (“Watch out for my bullshit / Everybody’s got it”) as others’.

But of course, this is a rock record from the ‘90s. These are songs about girls and their intricacies, about burning out and messing up. Either or both the words “dreams” and “confusion” appear on almost every song. Obviously, no shortage of rock songs describe relationships in some sense, but these have a striking directness, describing … well, confusion, with little excess by way of metaphor or vagueness. “Why do you tie me up with words?” Lowenstein asks in “Not Too Amused,” and this sentiment carries through the record. On “Shit Soup,” frustrated, he declares “I don’t need to sleep or eat / I smoke a thousand cigarettes,” one of the aptest descriptions of the sensation of things-going-wrong on record. Of course it’s teenage, but what’s the adult way to be in love?

Though usually deemed poppier than III, Bakesale‘s awkward, personal nature shines through headphones more than car stereos, alone at home and not at a bar. Clear lines lead into crunched-out dissonances, and even the catchy “Give Up” breaks itself up with a slowed down grunge passage, as though abashed of having too much fun. Each part sounds deliberate, written cautiously to avoid sounding expected or effortless. Lowenstein’s songs move at a more rapid clip than Barlow’s, a few of which drag a little bit. Nonetheless, Bakesale‘s consistency allows it to work tremendously well as a beginning-to-end album.

As anyone who reads rock criticism or waxes nostalgic for the ‘90s grandpa-style knows, that’s not really how music’s made anymore. I’m not sure if music today can even emerge with this same weird innocence. Sebadoh tried — both sonically and lyrically — so fucking hard, despite its slacker-gen trappings.

The CD reissue of Bakesale runs to a bloated 40 tracks. Some of the demos are fine, but everyone except the rabid superfan should seek out the acoustic records Barlow and Lowenstein (and not to mention Tara Jane O’Neil, who drums on about half the record) have recorded over the past 20 years instead of delving into the extras here.