Tape Hiss
#004: Populist Myths

cheap, durable, easy to produce, nothing tops a tape for a start-up label. CD-Rs are on the rise, but a tape has far higher fetish power as an object.

Grass Magic
[Object Recordings, 2005]

Cassettes bubble up from deep in the underground, from scenes whose total detachment from the music industry nullifies not only the concept of underground but prevailing musical wisdom as well, indie or otherwise. Brace not for DIY manifestos and anti-establishment tirades—by the time you reach cassettes the establishment lives so distant they aren’t worth the effort. Object Recordings exists only for itself and its purpose: the dissemination of aural head-scratchers from local oddballs. Money clearly plays a minor role, figuring as little more than green paper exhausted for the sake of a tape run and a couple cans of spray paint.

But those of us searching for populist myths in normal actions can do worse than this Grass Magic tape. Further proof that music operates largely unaware of money, if not in direct antagonism to it. Members of Davenport, the Skaters, and Jewelled Antler contribute to this no-star All-star group, brought together for Pasture Fest in 2004. The festival lasted long enough for this second installment of the collaboration, but not long enough for the union to grow stale.

The musical collisions here are bound to entertain. Calm, abstract Thuja-esque glass-glitter strews the scene, framing the Skaters’ blood-bubbling moans, all of it enveloped in grimy, automotive textures recalling an industrial-tinged Davenport recording. No notes (musical or liner) tell me who’s doing what, but such obscurity is more intriguing than frustrating.

Before I badly over-extend this metaphor, we can cut this off with the following: this tape is good. And just the type of recording for which cassettes are perfect: one-off musical moments, elusive jam sessions no one wants to sully with fancy recording equipment. Not too accessible, not too focused, but definitely worth a listen.

Big Whiskey
Hats Off to (Ryan) Taylor
[White Tapes, 2005]

Ah, White Tapes, where studio is more commonly affixed to “apartment,” noise to “violation,” and record to…I dunno…“store” (damned busted witticism). These upstanding Brooklynites parlay urban claustro-schizo-phrenia-phobia, cement dust synaptic clogs, and late-night rooftop cigarette-or-spliff glow points. Sound drowning sound, layers of demolition noise, sex jokes, throat clearings, and musical catharsis compressed to thin, whirling film.

Big Whiskey play the city apes this time around, flailing as if determined to generate enough calls down at the precinct to warrant arrest or exile. Stripped down to the bang-and-wail basics, Hats Off consists of little more than sketches. Sketches of stick figures making obscene gestures, gashes of blood-red Crayola, and furious looped squiggle. These recordings provide a noise-rock template, a meta-narrative whose details are furnished by other bands with more on their minds than freaking out and having a good time doing it. You’ve got the overdriven fuzz-guitar numbers, the low-key minor key organ meditation (with the careful sleepy drumming. This is rock, friend, not Popol Vuh), the swirling cosmosynth (is there a preset for that yet?), and the feedback tamed into a pleasant domestic beast.

Nothing on this tape hasn’t been done and redone by black-light poster owners worldwide for a decade-plus, but that doesn’t matter much. This tape is raw and joyous, a document of good folks blowing off steam after losing a job, or celebrating after getting another. Yet more fuel for my belief that improv noise is the real folk music right now, not the buffed-nail coffee-shop songs gumming up the works.

Kemialliset Ystävät
[POK, 2005]

Time to drag out the deadest horse in the critical stable, the one with “objectivity is impossible” lashed into its side. I love Kemialliset Ystävät. Got every KY album in print, and I’ve spent a few shameful nights trolling eBay for the remainders. Even if this tape flat-out sucked, I’d call it confrontational. Since I’m calling it spectacular, expect it to be in the good-to-great range, depending on your tastes for this sort of thing.

This sort of thing being zoned-out stick rhythms, alien chimes, and yowls and yelps cut-and-pasted into drunken drone-scapes. Live-to-tape from Hyvinkää, Taju proves that Jan Anderzen should watch his heart-rate on stage, that his studio intricacies can’t be and don’t need to reproduced for a mind-blowing show, and that I should move to Finland. For the scattered fans of this Finnish business, this tape sounds more like a blissed-out Avarus orbiting their more glorious moments.

From here on out, please assume every tape covered in the column comes cloaked in hiss and piss, sounding like bee swarms clouding a sticky-pawed honeybear. Taju’s fuzzy as said bear, and all the better for it. The jazz skronks drown in it, and the crunchy, see-saw synth tones dissolve. Taju’s damn near a lost shoegaze classic.

And damn near a classic, period, at least in my book. It should qualify for a footnote in yours.

Smoking/ Not Smoking
[Object Recordings, 2005]

After some investigative work, during which I nearly destroyed the legal envelope this tape is folded in, the two cards glued on were found to be a two of hearts and a ten of diamonds. A message: 2+10 = 12 a.k.a midnight, a reference to moon-worshipping New York rooftop sessions this tape memorializes. Or hearts + diamonds = love and money, perhaps the object of these gatherings. Or more likely, spare cards + time = novel packaging with no further meaning, to my great frustration.

Forgive my numerological search; this tape encourages it. Davenport has rarely sounded more stream-lined, and given their past excesses, one suspects a motive. More minimal without a doubt, possibly a tribute to the Glass’ and Riley’s dwelling in the city’s lofts below. Definitely sky-gazing—witness the piece slowly unfold as the stars struggle to life one-by-one through the haze. The sci-fi shrieks conjuring radiophonic Sagan documentaries encourage astral interpretations too.

It may be cheap to say, but this is the most urban Davenport recording. Gone are the I-got-the-devil-in-me caterwauls, the back-porch strums, and hippie hand-drums. That fiddle’s now an honest-to-God violin. After overlooking grim Gotham realities, the band’s gone austere, mostly benefiting from the change of scenery. Not that I’m expect or want a wholesale change of sound. But it’s nice to know they’re capable of one.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2006-01-12
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