Picking up on something I should have returned to years ago. . .
Thurston Moore — Demolished Thoughts (2011)
It's a damn shame that it took Kim and Thurston announcing their separation for me to finally get this album. I knew about it earlier in the year, but I just kept saying, "I'll get it next time" when I stepped into the record store. So, up front: yes, it's very mellow. Mellower even than Trees Outside the Academy. I loved Trees, plain and simple. It was a nearly shocking breath of fresh air at the time and it just felt for me like yet another sign of the great creative rebirth of all things Sonic Youth. The influence of Neil Young loomed large over that album. And (to continue that metaphor) if it was undeniably Crazy Horse in its sound, this one, while still retaining Neil's unavoidable influence, is a bit more Stray Gators. The string and harp accompaniment, the complete absence of electric guitars and the production and assistance touches of one Beck Hansen all add up to, hands down, the mellowest thing Thurston has ever stamped his name on. Truly, I have a hard time thinking anybody who liked Trees and that hears this will dislike it. The two albums almost play like complimentary pieces. The most Sonic Youth-y things get is on the centerpiece 'Orchard Street', which floats and strums its way into a very familiarly jammy territory for Youth fans (although, just played on acoustic guitars and, uhm. . . harps). 'Space' is clearly the best thing here. It's a long, dreamy meditation on private universes and the possibilities that could be. The string arrangements are decidedly in Sea Change territory and I can't say I'm anything other than absolutely pleased that the collaboration between Thurston and Beck yielded at least one thing I completely wanted to hear. The whole thing just becomes even more poignant and sad in the wake of the author's separation from his partner of 20+ years. It's one of those bittersweet musical triumphs. One that is just pure beauty on the surface, but with a bit of behind the scenes knowledge, it becomes an absolutely emotionally wrenching affair that I, as the listener, can only take a step back and marvel at the courage of the whole thing.
For Against — Black Soap EP (1984/2010)
Great to hear these very early recordings of one of the best American new wave bands ever. Things are very much in the early 80's post-punk vein here, as this basically documents the band's first serious trip to a recording studio (in 1984 — these recordings weren't properly released until 2010). The title track is a very short, angular, punky piece that manages to be punk and psych at the same time. And so, here it all is: what I've been searching for has been in front of my face all along (more on this later). 'Black Good Friday' follows suit and, if nothing else, previews the For Against sound that was to come. It's 'Amen Yves' (here sub-titled 'White Circles') that really puts forth that the band was completely special. A totally stock Factory Records sound is conjured up amidst a fantastically dreamy drum machine and bass synth groove that could fill the snobbiest of rock club dance floors. Totally ace. Scary to think they were this good this early. Short, but sweet!
For Against — In the Marshes (1984-1987)
This was actually recorded in the years noted, but not released until 1990. Again, pretty stunning stuff for an American band at the time. I'd say only the Mission of Burma had come this close to sounding nearly as genuinely bleak as their British counterparts (and that's a compliment to everyone involved). And yeah, I bring that up because the band still sounds totally stuck on their British influences (not that this is a bad thing, just limiting). The glorious wonderful gloominess that is 'Amen Yves' appears twice in two versions that are even more Factory Records-obsessed than the Black Soap version (and again, this is not necessarily a bad thing). Overall, it sounds like a band trying to find their voice. And, for a band that had so much greatness ahead of them, the potential is just blossoming.
For Against — Echelons (1986)
One of the great lost classics of the American new wave. It sums up 'tiny metropolis' living pretty well within the first track. Indeed, 'Shine' says it all: "I've had this idea, I've had it for a while: blow this town to smithereens. Yeah, that would be my style. Does that answer your question?" Growing up in an isolated, tiny metropolis myself in the early 90's, I can definitely relate. What follows is almost like the American Unknown Pleasures. A set of nine absolutely perfect bass driven, jangly songs that seem to be so fast because the band is so nervous. The grasp on atmospherics that the band had at this point is downright jaw dropping. Case in point: the way 'It's a Lie' develops from solo bass to an absolutely gloom-ridden wall of sound is just impressive. The band's first official single receives a reprise here on 'Autocrat' and it's another highlight. An angular bass riff and many fancy guitar pedal showcases by Harry Dingman atop a singular lyric of "Yeah, that's right: that's the way it is" by singer/bassist Jeffrey Runnings and the deal is sealed. 'Forget Who You Are' is a strikingly resonating rant against the record industry, but musically it sounds as faithfully Joy Division-esque as the best of any of their British peers. The album ends with the longburning, slow-developing 'Broke My Back' which is just as good and as gloomily wonderful as anything the Cure or the Sisters of Mercy could have churned out at the same time. I guess my point here is: this band was surely inspired by all the late-70's British new wave greats — but so were all their British contemporaries at the time of this album's release. Why should they be considered second tier because they were not British? They were using the same source material for their thesis as their British counterparts — and they did just as well, if not better. I initially bought this album about ten years ago during my tenure at the local used record store. I followed a recommend from the Chameleons website and happened to find an original vinyl copy of the album at work. I listened, loved it and thought nothing more of it. I surely read Jack Rabid's glowing reviews of the band's newer material in the Big Takeover over the years and just said to myself that one day I would go back to them. I just decided to go for it and order everything that Words on Music had available the other day. I doubled up on this copy of Echelons because it just felt right.
For Against — December (1988)
A lot of folks have gone out of their way to declare this the best of the For Against catalogue. And, as much I have to agree that it is certainly an exemplary work, it just isn't a standout in the bigger picture. I purchased this one on digital download way back when (not long after I scored my Echelons vinyl) and perhaps it was the reason for my lesser enthusiasm about the band. If it was the best they had done, maybe I was on the wrong track. I definitely liked it; then and now. But, I don't know. It has a bit of staleness to it. (I lost it, along with lots of other music I only had digitally over a year ago when an external drive crashed) The best songs are better than anything on Echelons (mostly looking at 'Sabres', 'Clandestine High Holy' and 'Stranded in Greenland' here), but the rest is just nice filler. A lot of the songs feel like they go on for too long and the tempo is slowed down a little too much (I mean, I found it great that they played so fast on the first album; illusions of being a punk band were nothing if not totally entertaining at that point for them). Throughout all of that though, Jeffrey Runnings' lyrics are quite nearly the best they've ever been. He captures an isolated, lonely feeling so well, so many times throughout the album that it's hard to believe these weren't the first set of lyrics he'd ever written (they sound naive enough, but affecting enough to be). A worthy follow up to Echelons in the bigger picture, but just not as good.
For Against — Coalesced (2002)
It's like so many of my own personal music-listening potentials, fulfilled and shattered in one gloriously jangly melancholy swoop. I've never heard this album until now. All the same, it strikes me as clearly the band's best work. And this is strange, as it features only one of the group's original members: bassist/singer Jeffrey Runnings. It's a lot more jangly than their 80's work, but it retains that same feeling of introspective isolation that only seems to genuinely occur to those of us that are landlocked for extended periods (the album cover photo, which crops a bundle of wheat inside an ocean blue square is very telling). Runnings returns to bass for the first time since December and maybe it was that that was the spark to his output. His lyrics are inwardly looking, but not down. Indeed, every song here has a retrospective slant that feels more redemptive than it does depressing. This is music of personal revelation. The excellently jangly backdrop (handled by Steven Hinrichs) is the perfect complement to the lyrics here. It finds that majestic balance between overtly self-indulgent mush and truly resonating art. Runnings seems like he can't say anything that's not profound when he blurts out in his boyish croon gems like, "Nothing this bad can ever last" and "Intangible things don't mean too much: isn't that sad?" I love this album. And, most of all, it fulfills the research I set out —when I decided that new wave was the genre for me and that I needed more sparsely jangly albums like the Cure's Seventeen Seconds in my life— and it just feels like epic redemption for me as a music fan after hearing it this far into my life and getting as much out of it as I am. And, for the band that created it, it's also an absolute triumph. It sounds like nothing else. There are shades of moods of the bands that inspired it, but there are no direct lines of influence to be heard. For an American band to accomplish such a feat just makes me feel great. It's a strummy, layered, mature, introspective and rewarding masterpiece from a band that seemed poised to make such a record all along. That they actually did and that it's actually better than the records from what most people would consider to be their peak period is just shocking. Jesus, it's good.
For Against — Shade Side Sunny Side (2008)
This one was hailed as a serious return to form at the time, mostly because original guitarist Harry Dingman was back on board. I like it. It's a bit more rockin' than I'm used to for these guys (the gratuitous distortion on songs like 'Glamour' and 'Aftertaste' just don't sound right). 'Why Are You So Angry?' has shades of Coalesced and it's definitely a favorite. The music on this album is very reflective of the stark, white on sparse black cover. It definitely has that quiet/loud dynamic going on. Songs like the piano-led 'Game Over' are just about as bleak as anything the band has ever done, while the closer 'Irresistible' turns all of Runnings' seemingly inward-focused anger over the years at an actual target and the results are just downright chilling. Overall, it sounds exactly like the sort of music that two-thirds of the original band should be making at this point.
For Against — Never Been (2009)
Striking again quickly, Jeff and Harry put out this even better album with a new drummer (Nicholas Buller, who had replaced Paul Englehard). Granted, it doesn't truly get off the ground until track two on the flat out gorgeous 'Different Departures', it's nothing but the sky from that point onward. The band has backed away from it's unnecessarily aggressive stance on the previous album, and back into the more subdued and sublime territory of Coalesced. Take for example the post-rock leaning instrumentals 'Black Willows', 'Per Se' and 'The Tenebrists' and you know something new is awry. 'Specificity' is an absolute classic in the band's playbook at this point. This album just seems to continue in the mature jangle sound that they started on Coalesced, and it's nearly as good. The closer 'You Fade' is a dark, cascading wall of dynamics and it's capped off back Runnings' confession that "It's always been this way for. . . like a thief who's fled the scene, you fade away from memory." Fantastic stuff. Especially for a band who may have been seen as a second tier act all along. It's nice to know that, yes, they were that good all along. And they've been here all along. Just waiting for your (re)discovery.
Also, as a side note, Oakland band Broken Cities is giving their album away for free. It's definitely in the post-rock vein of things. It reminds me very much of Sigur Rós without a singer. Been digging it a lot recently. Check it out; it's free after all.