Swinging Modern Sounds #9: The Means of Production

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jwh_covMakers and consumers of music, there is no other conclusion but that the future of the medium lies in your hands. In these bad times, when big record companies have vertically integrated as much as they can vertically integrated, and, having squeezed as much profit as they could out of a dead medium (the compact disc), have begun failing dramatically, such that their only institutional recourse can be in the direction of risk aversion, producing (in the process) some of the worst and most formulaic music of the last fifty years (you thought the eighties were bad), it’s time that you started assuming the risk yourself, betting on what you love, living for what you love, whether it’s Brooklyn psychedelic folk, or alt.country, or underground hip hop, or new serious music, whichever, you need to start spending on what you believe in, not just the recordings, but the means of production of recordings. The little labels, the self-releasing labels, the owner-operators, and so on.

Another way of saying it is this: it’s one of the nefarious miracles of late capitalism that it continues to efface its oppressions, so that you, the consumer, again refuses or forgets to ask just where that t-shirt (so cheap at Target!) came from, under what circumstances it swaddles your back. Or better yet: you, casual user of coke or meth, continue to fail to ask under what circumstances your fun time at that nightclub was produced. What abducted AmerIndian teen in the Andean rain forest was impressed at gunpoint into the cartel so that you could hit on that attractive (record company) publicist after the big gig at Mercury Lounge, or wherever, so that you might offer her a little taste, leading inevitably (in your view) to a night of excessive garrulity and memorable nakedness in her place in W’burg or Long Island City. Why do you not see that your night of cheap bliss is drenched in blood and forged in historical enslavement?

tygertyger

Capitalism is to blame, I agree, but it’s your responsibility to start thinking more carefully about where your drugs and your t-shirts and your electricity and your latte and your music comes from, not to mention your flour, your bananas, your running shoes, and your government. It’s for these reasons, friends, because I believe in seizing the means of production, and it’s for these reasons that I have signed on as an occasional A&R man at Popover Records. Located in Fort Greene, Bklyn, New York City, Popover has (now) a one-year tradition of locating and rehabilitating the best music of (primarily) the seventies and eighties and restoring this music to its rightful placement in the pantheon of the indie/outsider/obscure. Incorporated in 2008 by Wesley Stace, also known as the folk noir artist John Wesley Harding, first as vehicle for some of his own releases (especially the newly released Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead featuring such excellent pop confabulations as “Top of the Bottom,” “Oh! Pandora,” and “A Very Sorry Saint,” among other startlingly elegant and lovingly arranged compositions), Popover quickly blossomed into a full-fledged, full service independent record label, featuring A&R work by a wide variety of successful and talented writers and musicians: Jonathan Lethem, Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Hornby, Sherman Alexie, and others (including yours truly).

zerovilleIf the sheer firepower of the A&R staff is not enough to convince you of the potential of this label, and, indeed of independent and self-released music generally, how about some of the artists themselves? I as say, many of the finds here date to a very inventive period in music, punk and post-punk, which is to say from 1975-1985, including Lethem’s childhood friends Zeroville, whose early 45, “I Know Batman,” from the compilation, Couldn’t Get a Gig At the Pep, is noteworthy for the Stein-esque repetitions of the lyric: “You know/You know I/You know I know/You know I know/You/You know I know/You know I know I know I know/You know I know I know I know I know Batman . . .” Wherein Batman is almost certainly not the caped crusader, but some Alphabet City lowlife capable of opening doors for these bad boys of the scene, some of whom went on to join the last incarnation of the Tuff Darts (remember “Your Love Is Like Nuclear Waste” from that CBGB’s anthology?), and some of whom went on to be arbitrage experts and lawyers (lead singer Nick “MTA” Savitch-Lew, e.g.). These songs are poorly played, sloppy, sometimes out of tune, but the daily concerns of New York City are sustenance to them, and they accurately convey poignant hues of life in Brooklyn during the budgetary chaos of the mid-seventies with an enthusiasm and self-awareness that is infectious.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

Then there’s Tyger Tyger’s Redemption Jam, as selected by Sherman Alexie. Look, you know and I know that “redemption” is a big word, a tough word to use effectively in a rock and roll context. Bob Marley did it, in “Redemption Song,” but he did it at the very end of his career, terminally ill, given to reflection. Part of “redemption” in that case, is the pre-formatted posthumous wisdom. I’m not sure that the individual bands that made up Tyger Tyger, viz., Cattle Guard, Wizard of Lee Harvey Oswald, et al., none of whom could do much to make a tepid Portland punk scene in the early- and mid-eighties be any less tepid, have the gravitas to deploy “redemption.” Nevertheless, it was the somewhat dangerous decision to use lyrics by William Blake and a string section (sic) that make these slowed tempos more than the sum of their parts, more creepy, more noetic, more indelible. Just “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” alone, a title that would seem more fitting for some of the grindcore of the late nineties than for an early punk suprgroup, is worth the price of the album. These guys really would roll their carts over the bones of the dead.

onslaughtofautumnI’d spend some time speaking of my own selection, Onslaught of Autumn, the Scottish sextet from the seventies, not to be confused with the Goth metal band from Minneapolis of contemporary vintage (and if you’re wondering how two bands could have this name, I am with you), but I don’t really want to appear to blow my own horn at any length. Suffice to say they had three drummers, two acoustic and one synthesized, two bass players (one fretless), and no guitar player at all. Lots of synths. They affected some of the populist, socialist-style rhetoric that is familiar to us from, e.g., Gang of Four, The Mekons, et al. And they were nearly all missing teeth. But enough about my band. Go listen for yourself.

The best record on Popover, the jewel in the crown, besides John Wesley Harding’s own effort, is Seth Tufts’s Chainsaw Lullabies, here selected by Rupert Thomson, who I have already grown to dislike immensely from the few marketing meetings we have both attended. I don’t care who the guy is, I don’t care how many novels he has written (unfortunately, I have to admit I admire his novels): the label is more than Rupert Thomson from frigging Barcelona. Barcelona, Barcelona, that’s all people like this have to talk about? Anyway, even if the guy is totally full of himself, he has selected an amazing album. This is a one of a kind, in fact, and far better than even Thomson’s hageographic liner notes suggest. Seth Tufts speaks to the undeniable luminosity of the Piedmont style of blues picking, here reconstructed, with post-modern ingenuity, after the grunge period. sethtuftsMusically, Tufts grew up on the Seattle of the early nineties, but, thereafter, despite his British origins, he went back to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, to see what remained. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to teach a nation about its musical heritage. The best song on the album, to my ears, is “April Fool’s Day,” which borrows the North Mississippi blues structure (one riff, no going to the four) and an old blues rhyme scheme, AAB, BBC, CCD, and so on, to talk about the worst kind of romance, the kind in which you are deluded from the very beginning, the kind in which even the first kiss is faithless.

The Tufts album, alone, should persuade you that Popover Records (or Popover Corps, as Wesley Stace calls it, in his charmingly English way) is undertaking a brave voyage. And whether or not this voyage succeeds you should see, now, how imperative is this mission. If we leave music to the transnational distribution channels, we are not going to be able to get the best music, the most ambitious music, the most unusual music. It is labels like this that are the wave of the future. I call for labels that have a ghostly aspect, that come from nowhere, do their best work, and vanish as quickly as they first appear. Labels that have a little bit hucksterism about them but which are also full of enthusiasm and relentlessness. Look, part of the reason for my participation in Popover has to do with the fact that the book business is these days just as bad as the record business, and Popover is helping me to cover health insurance costs right now, but that is neither here nor there. I believe in the project and you should too. At least you know where this music came from.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →