Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The CIA Took My Dog Away

In a fit of nostalgia, I went out and got the new Sonic Youth record Rather Ripped. I have to admit that it's really gorgeous. It's very nostalgic, not at all forward looking or anything like that. It's soft, melancholy, and shockingly melodic. Few of the guitars really "sound" like Sonic Youth. They sound, dry, brittle, but warm, if that's possible, with lots of harmonics. I don't know how or why they decided to go this way. Listening to it, I almost feel like I am back in college (Station), in my shitty apartment wishing that I had a girlfriend.

One of the reasons that I don't write here that much is that no one knows that this blog exists. Well, that is not strictly true. Three people know it exists although I can't be sure that any of those three people have actually seen it. So I write in a vacuum. Which is liberating, I suppose.

I haven't read too many books this year. I typically read at a glacial pace. I get about half way into a book and then give up. A couple that I actually finished: Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up & Start Again: PostPunk 1978-1984. The former was totally crazy, about two vaguely homicidal and licentuous couples in pre-Great War America who, well you just have to read it. The latter was...well-written. I met Simon Reynolds once at some bar in the Lower East Side called Nu-Blu where he showed up to celebrate the release of the book. He was taller than me and looked very young for his age. I think he's in his early 40s. He was also totally drunk. We spoke for maybe half-an-hour in the middle of total cacophony (bad NY-wanna-be-postpunkdisco music of the early 2000s). He was very polite. The music was loud. He said he'd seen the Slits in concert. I thought he said the Smiths. That was sort of how the conversation went. I invited him to be a guest lecturer in my (still-in-gestation) class on the history of rock'n'roll (perhaps in the fall of 2007). He seemed eager. I am intimidated by him because he writes better, knows more about music, and is better looking than me. (And for sure, makes more money). The only defense I had was to revel in my mediocrity. Proud to be average, goddammit.

Thinking of Simon Reynolds and all that post-punk brings me to my topic for today: over-rated musical institutions. Exhibit A: Joy Division. I understand on a cognitive level why Joy Division remains critically unassailable: their music was rather innovative, they communicated a general darkness that was distant yet palatable, their lifetime was short, their music seems to have dated well, and their suicide quotient is at at a full '10.' But I don't understand how a fairly good band has been canonized, a hagiography taken to absurdly doctrinnaire levels. In the music world, especially critics who write about music, it's agreed but never spelled out that Joy Division is unimpeachable. In the scheme of music writing, Joy Division is one of those sacred things, as Jimi Hendrix was/is for baby boomers. You just don't absolutely ever fucking EVER describe the music of Joy Division as anything but revelatory. I listened to Closer the other day. It sounded vaguely tolerable. I always liked that song "Isolation" but everything else sounds so tinny and dated and tuneless. And tuneless in a bad way, not in a Captain Beefheart/early Boredoms/Keiji Haino-like way. Just plain horrible tuneless. The set of random leftovers collected on Substance is actually pretty good. All those singles and compilation tracks were imaginative and inventive. But the band were not really good with the whole album thing. And the ethos that they communicated was done much better by other people (for example, by the brilliant [early] Swans).

And let's face it, Ian Curtis couldn't sing worth shit. He had this tuneless warble that sounded like he was gurgling water. I'm not denigrating the pain he perhaps felt, and yes, the band backed up that pain pretty well, but hardly on a level, say of some nu-metal band fronting adolescent cliches about suicide and death and meaninglessness and helplessness. Joy Division's clinical, cool, detached shtick was just plastic. Their innovative tendencies (both on stage and in the recording studio) were nothing compared to many of their contemporaries such as P.I.L. I'm already getting bored writing about the band. To me, Joy Division were the Alice in Chains of their era. And I say that with the best of intentions. I'm quite fond of Alice in Chains. They're not the greatest but did what they did pretty nicely. Check out their Jar of Flies e.p. Wonderful stuff. Tragic about their lead singer.

OK, on to obscure track of the day. My old favorite band from Philly, Asteroid # 4, used to be this weird whimsical band in the vein of late '60s psychedelia. They put on fantastic shows and put out a great album (Introducing....The Asteroid # 4) in 1998. Around this time, while I was living in Philly, I discovered them when a friend and I showed up at the record release party for Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which was held at the Trocadero, the best place to see live music in Philly. They band (Asteroid # 4) were four typical college-looking guys who launched into spasmotic space rock, even introducing a flute player at one point. They had totally ridiculous lyrics and deadpan faces. It was actually pretty funny.

I saw them a few more times but lost track once they veered into a cul-de-sac of imitation; they started getting obssessed with mid-period Byrds, especially the canon of Gram Parsons. It's not that I don't like Parsons' music, but more that it was a tired move for them, and they didn't doo it very well. However, they have a new album out called "An Amazing Dream," and from what I've heard it sounds a lot more fun and creative, harking back to their early days. Go to their myspace page to hear some stuff streaming.

One thing that was lost in the shuffle through their albums was their one-off non-album single from 1995 "The CIA Took My Dog Away" b/w "Mellow Beach," two spectacular tracks that perfectly encapsulate a kind of false nostalgia for never-really-existed late '60s psychedelia. Lots of killer melodies, fake British accents, and Barrett-era weirdness, and throw in some My Bloody Valentine-guitar, and you have these songs. They never did anything quite as good after these couple of songs, which unfortunately remain unreleased on CD. I converted the two songs to mp3s from vinyl (lotta hum) and would post them on this site, except I have no freakin' idea how to post mp3s here (or if indeed one can), so if anyone's interested, I can e-mail the track. That's how lame I am.

There is an old interview with the band here.
And a vide of the band: