I feel a little content at the moment…rather contemplative and relaxed. I got all my “work” online writing done and I’m sitting at the coffee shop listening to “Friendship” by Ash Ra Tempel, the reunion album between Manuel Goestscling and Klaus Schulze from 2000. Ain’t nothing special but it’s chill and easy to relax to while I people watch.
Lots of beautiful girls out in town this summer. Normally, this town is completely void of any interesting and engaging females (not completely but damn close) but college is out and they have all come back to town. They fill up the coffee shop. They fill up the bars. They steal my hats and tickle my belly at bars on my birthday (true story and good alliteration).
I have a desire to review the first Ash Ra Tempel album right now. It’s a good album; hard hitting space rock with real fire and an edge to it that sits well with the modern generation. But I haven’t heard it in quite some time, so I don’t think it’s fair that I should review it.
Honestly, I’m feeling a bit PJ Harvey-like at the moment. A bit fiery and confrontational. Beautiful and mournful. Angry, happy, melancholic, depressed, elated and most importantly as free and refreshing as a God damn swam dive into a 50 degree pond on a 100 degree summer day.
“Rid of Me.” Not the first Polly Jean album I’ve ever heard. Perhaps the first Polly Jean SONG I heard…the slow build up of palm muted guitars, a near whisper of a voice, curling around a purr of a vocal melody and a lyric that contains all the rage of all the women who have ever been discarded like a candy wrapper in the wind.
Climax. Scream. “Don’t you wish you’d never…never met her don’t you…” Singing through a distortion pedal. “Lick my legs I’m on fire.” Whatever that means. A 5’1” ball of fury and English rage and semi-incoherency coalescing into a slow burn groove that threatens to fall apart under the eye of Albini.
I haven’t heard this album in ages but I can always come back to it and remember the songs that have always stuck out in my head: I can also re-live the songs that have never made an impression on me and make in-grounds on appreciating them more and more. It’s a slow process: I probably listen to this album less than once a year.
Albini casts his careless “production” eye towards this album, helping set up the instruments, pushing “record” when the band starts playing and hitting “stop” when they’re done, cutting up tapes to arrange songs into the right order. Refusing to touch up the tapes in anyway, leaving them as they stand on the performances and on the songs. After all, it was “recorded by” not “produced by” Steve Albini.
Forgive her, then, if the songs sometimes sound similar. The arrangements are usually just pounding/grinding guitars with a solid rhythmic bass and drum groove that pounds home the ideas, arguments and sensibilities of one Polly Jean Harvey who pulled back from such underproduction almost immediately on her next album and explored deeper sonic sensibilities with each subsequent release.
Deeper doesn’t always mean better but it doesn’t mean worse either. Deeper is just different.
“Man Size Sextet” comes before the tune its based on, which I always found amusing. It is highlighted by a grinding, plucking, frightening string arrangement played entirely by Harvey (unless I’m wrong). It stands out due to its sonic difference from the normal guitar, drums bass racket raised elsewhere on the album. And also due to Harvey’s frantic, pleading vocal…”I’m man size…” she despairs, chanting about her birth rite and creeping me the fuck out. In a good way. In a GREAT way.
The original “Man Size” isn’t quite as good to these ears: those scraping strings set the mood better than her relatively simple guitar playing. A whole album of “Man Size Sextet”-style tunes wouldn’t be my bag but on this album it’s poyfect.
Her cover of “Highway 61 Revisited” is also a stand out: not necessarily better than Bob’s original (I miss the wild whistle) and definitely not as easy on the ears. However, I believe it captures the intense, neurotic and apocalyptic vibe better than Bob’s take.
“HIGHWAY!!!! HIGHWAY!!! 61.” Not to hell. Sorry Bon, but as a wordsmith you’re no Bob Dylan. You ain’t even an Alice Cooper (who Dylan called an “underrated” songwriter) but at least you’re better than Brian Johnson (who never met seven metaphors he couldn’t mix) or the Young brothers (I’m sorry, but “you’ve been…THUNDERSTRUCK!” is NOT a good chorus).
Bon Scott is also no PJ Harvey but that’s only because she’d probably loathe his guts for being a sexist pig. But then again, it’s always hard to tell with PJ Harvey: one minute, she’s bashing out a song called “Dry” and bemoaning the fact that her man can’t get her wet and the next moaning about “Ecstasy” (not the drug, kiddies). She doesn’t hate men, as such: she just hates specific ones.
Some songs don’t really make much sense lyrically which is cool. It just means I haven’t listened to them carefully enough to decipher their meaning and it gives me something to focus on with my next listen.
For example, while I love the drive of “Yuri G” I have no idea what “I wish I were a Yuri G!” means? Is she speaking of Yuri Gregarian? The first man into space?
I hope so: I’d love to think that PJ Harvey was singing about her desire to be a cosmonaut.
Naturally, that desire to be a cosmonaut is most likely a metaphor for some other desire or dream, perhaps indicating Harvey simply wants to be a pioneer or a similarly important person. Great song, great album, strange, strange, strange…
What I like most about PJ Harvey and this record in particular is that she is a very small person who can create very hard hitting music while screaming incredibly loud (and on key) in a way that is emotionally moving in exactly the way she intended.
In that regard, she has a lot in common with AC/DC. Sure, they’re singing about how being cool and doing it instead of accurately detailing one woman’s rage in a harrowing manner. They seem worlds apart in that regard.
But what I like most about AC/DC is that they’re very small people (about 4’0” on average), who create hard hitting music while screaming incredibly loudly (on key) in a way that is emotionally moving in exactly the way they intended.
Sure, they mean to make you giggle and dance awkwardly while hitting on chicks in bars while PJ wants to touch your heart and make you think about the female condition. But then again, the devil’s in the details.
Somehow, I feel that “Big Black” is a group that never really gets their due. Yes, any alternative rock fan worth their weight in salt knows the name “Steve Albini.” Albini is an infamous producer that patented a rather trebly, high pitched industrial-ish rumble that mixed drum machines, punk rock, high pitched guitar sounds (everything in “Big Black” is “treble”) and an absolute dedication to DIY that has made him one of the most respected and sought after producers in the business.
He is also one of the grumpiest guys in the world of rock and roll: his lengthy rants on well…everything are rather infamous. He called the CD edition of “Atomizer” “The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape” and chastised the buyer in the CD liner notes for wasting their money on an “inferior” sounding product.
Whatever his hang ups and personality quirks, the man is a living legend but mostly for his production skills and not for his songwriting. Which is a shame: the man developed an intriguing production style, had a way with catchy riffs and melodies and even had something to say lyrically, especially on the previously mentioned debut album “Atomizer” which is, naturally, our review of the day.
Now, what Albini has to say lyrically isn’t very pretty. His topics generally concern boredom, mid-western insanity, serial killers, self harm, serial child rapists and a variety of other nasty topics. There is no bright lights or sunshine in the lyrical world of Albini, as made clear on the track “Steelworker” from debut EP “Lungs” where he chants “I work with my hands…and I kill what I eat” over a harsh, grinding groove that makes it clear that Albini is coming for you.
Focusing on negative lyrical matters is nothing new but Albini goes the extra mile and sings everything from the first person perspective. It’s never “they’re steelworkers, they kill what they eat” or “they live in Jordan, they do what they like.” It’s “I’M a steelworker…I kill what I eat” and “this is Jordan, WE do what we like.” He puts himself right into the boots of the negative people about which he sings.
This caused some serious controversy when “Atomizer” came out, especially because of the song “Kerosene” Albini’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of rock and roll theatrical performance.
Albini would no doubt baulk at such a statement: calling his music theatrical would no doubt insult him more deeply than calling him a sell out.
But I don’t know how else you could define this song: it starts out with an insane, high pitch ringing (one of Albini’s trademark sounds) that builds into a wild, rampaging guitar, bass and Roland Drum stomp that eventually drops out to a bass and drum groove.
Albini then begins detailing the mentality of what he believes is a typical, mid-western, small town loser with no ambition, no future and no hope. He uses a minimum of words and phrases and repeats them regularly to reinforce their strength.
“There’s never anything to do in this town…lived here all my life…probably come to die in this town…lived here all my life…nothing to do but sit around home, sit around the house and stare at the walls, stare at each other and wait till we die, stare at each other and wait till we die…there’s never anything to do in this town…lived here my whole life…”
Chilling and a feeling that anybody who’s ever lived in the mid-west can identify with completely. And then he says a single phrase that reawakens the monstrous guitars “there’s kerosene around…it’s just something to do…” He repeats this phrase a few times, with various degrees of intensity before screaming “SET ME ON FIRE!”
The rest of the song then de-evolves (in a good way) into a noisy mess of over trebled guitars, bashing drum machines, screams and even a false start. The song perfectly defines the Albini mythos and style in a matter of seconds.
But there are other songs on this album too! Imagine. Opener, “Jordan, Minnesota” is a song about the (alleged) child abuse ring in the town of Jordan and while the truthfulness of the story has been hotly debated for years, hearing Albini sing “this is Jordan…we do what we like” over and over again is truly creepy. But only if you know the story: without knowing the story it’s nowhere near as effective but it still has a great riff and great drive.
“Passing Complexion” features more wildly over trebled guitars (really, how the hell doe she make that high pitched “shing!” sound on the guitars?) playing intricate, strange and relatively complex guitar parts.
The album does have a basic sound and style that bleeds over to the rest of the tracks: if you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard them all. They vary in the riffs and melodies as well as the arrangements and the lyrical focus but all set this mood of grinding, inescapable mid-west despair that is simultaneously gripping and wearing on the consciousness.
The CD version of “Atomizer” contains some bonus tracks from the “Heart Beat” EP. The title track is a cover of the Wire tune from “Chairs Missing” and has a similar menacing atmosphere but builds to Albini screams instead of the chanting of the original. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Final verdict? If you like noisy, difficult but well composed punk/industrial style rock, it’s worth a buy. In fact, buy everything by Big Black: you only need to get three CD’s: this, The Hammer Party and Songs About Fucking.
p.s. Big Black doesn’t really sound like “punk” or “industrial” but those are the closest genre terms I can find for the style they play. It’s definitely a unique sound that Albini utilized in all subsequent bands with minor variations.
Song to YouTube:
“Kerosene” and “Jordan, Minnesota” will tell you all that you need to know about Big Black. If you like those songs, you’ll like the rest.