There’s a heaving lurch in “Sick,” a symptom of Palberta’s tight austerity, and deconstruction of pop songwriting. Rather than rely on any sort of hook, by most standards, at least, the band utilizes a mantra, repeating a word, phrase, or even inflection, until a few things happen:
1. The mantra is manifested as a sonic force
2. The mantra has lost its semantic quality
3. The mantra’s repetition becomes comfortable, familiar, and reassuring
It may seem strange that a composition as quick and hyper-composed as “Sick”—it boasts a runtime of less than a minute and a half—can prove emblematic of the power of incantation, and yet, that uneasy, hypnotic repetition is the well from which the song draws power. I can almost hear myself joining in the chant, before the vocals break off, and I'm left nodding off to a spindly groove, and a final lithely-picked guitar lick.
Lee Ranaldo was seven or eight years old when he got his first guitar—“That is, one that wasn’t a tennis racket,” he says. It was a pink plastic ukulele silk-screened with pictures of the Beatles, acquired after Ranaldo saw them play on Ed Sullivan in 1964. Later, during his high school years, he graduated to a larger-body, Japanese Martin D-18 copy, on which he would learn Beatles covers and folk songs. And although he would eventually come to be known for his work with Fender Jazzmasters and Gibson Les Pauls, Ranaldo has been collecting acoustic guitars ever since.
In recent years, the Sonic Youth guitarist has been revisiting his beginnings, eschewing the noise- riddled sounds of that band and early solo efforts like 1987’s From Here To Infinity in favor of acoustic-driven, Americana-inspired songwriting. Calling from his Manhattan home, he says he’s especially interested in the stories of the people who make them. Here’s one he told us about legendary luthier Michael Gurian.
Lee Ranaldo: A friend of mine recently started bugging me about this early ’70s guitar-maker named Michael Gurian. As it turns out, some of the best guitar-makers trained in Gurian’s shop. The shop was on Carmine Street in the West Village, and as far as I know, he began building guitars there. When he started to get a little more serious, he had a shop on Bedford Street, also in the West Village, and built guitars there for a while. He later moved to New Hampshire and built guitars there. But all in all, he built guitars for about 10 years, and then quit.
Furniture, Zina’s debut EP, sees both the best in pop songwriting and a gut-wrenching longing. According to Night People’s website, the EP’s six songs were written from the perspective of “a divorced housewife [who] still had it.” On Furniture’s first single “Vacation,” Zina portrays the soon-to-be-divorcee attempting to draw her lover into an escape plan. “We’ll leave our troubles behind, and those papers on the table you did not sign,” she implores, before suggesting an alternative—“Let’s take a vacation. Where you go, I’ll go.” It’s idyllic and memorable, but proves unrealistic for the narrator, even buttressed by all the major key soundscapes and hooks housed in Zina’s impressive arsenal. It’s unfortunate for the character, but the rest of us have these pop bangers, so... it’s pretty sick.
Wake In Frightis one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Aside from its grotesque, controversial footage of hunted kangaroos, the film’s ever-present sense of dread and absurdity, a sense that permeates every fiber of Bundanyabba, the small mining town in Australia’s outback that becomes the film setting, is unlike any other. The “Yabba,” as it is endearingly referred to in the movie, mixes the futility of a movie like The Exterminating Angel with the brutality of something like Deliverance. As such, it’s the perfect title for Uniform’s upcoming LP. It’s no secret that vocalist Michael Berdan likes his movies dark, and his lyrics reflect that, as does Ben Greenberg’s seething guitar work and pummeling drum machine. “Tabloid,” the first single from Wake In Fright is the meanest thing the duo’s released, and also the most concise. It would be misleading to say the song is poppy, but it is more digestible—that is if you don’t mind digesting a death adder. Then again, if Top 40 dripped venom rather than dollar bills, this could hit the top of the pops.
Shirley Collins, English folk luminary, has been amassing a repertoire of traditional songs since her childhood in 1940s Sussex, England, a period she associates with being sung to by her grandparents during frequent stints in air raid shelters. As she matured, her interest in folk eventually led her to the American Deep South, a trip which resulted in the much celebrated collection Sounds of the South. As moving and inspiring as that trip proved to be, Collins’s heart was in her motherland, England, where she returned, continuing to collect songs in the English tradition, and creating such seminal works as 1959's Sweet England and 1969's Anthems in Eden, a collaborative record with her sister Dolly. Shirley’s career took a decidedly negative turn, however, in 1978, when she began developing dysphonia. She lost her ability to sing, and retreated from both the stage and the studio. That is, until one David Michael Bunting, known to many as Current 93’s David Tibet, phoned her up, asking to meet for what, in hindsight, was a surely fortuitous exchange.
Fast-forward through the '90s and early 2000s: after a few contributions to Current 93 records and a number of foregone invitations to perform, Collins appeared on stage for the first time in 2014 at Union Chapel, opening for Current 93. But why stop at one performance? Following the concert, and bolstered by the positive reactions, Shirley “wanted to give it one more go” and record a new album. She picked an assortment of personally important songs that would eventually become that album, Lodestar, out last week on Domino. Across the record’s ten evocative tracks, Collins reveals herself as enraptured by traditional music as ever, showing off a resplendent selection of penitent songs, murder ballads, may carols, and more, a nod to her excellent power of curation. It’s a powerful, profound release—a much-needed reminder of the power of personal contact and lineage in the digital age, and a much-needed reminder of how the oldest and most authentic songs are sung out of pride and necessity, in addition to enjoyment. We spoke to Collins about collecting and interpolating folk songs, and getting back into the studio.
AdHoc: You’ve been hearing or collecting folk songs since you were very young. How did you decide which songs to sing on Lodestar? Were they new songs for you?
Shirley Collins: Oh! They just presented themselves, really. I’ve got so many songs in my head, but there are some that really stick with you, ones I’ve regretted not recording before. There were a couple of new ones that came in as well that wanted to be sung, so I sang them. The most likable one for me was the Cajun song “Sur le Borde de l’Eau.” I love Cajun music’s rhythms and its independence—it stayed itself. Once I heard this early 1920s recording of Blind Uncle Gaspard, a Louisiana singer, I fell in love with the song. We went ahead and did it, but that’s very unusual for me, because I mostly sing songs from the English tradition. It’s been my life’s work listening to as much as I can. Working with Alan Lomax in America was incredible, but back in England there were collectors too who were working throughout the country, noting down songs. That tradition had gone back as far as the mid nineteenth century when collectors just wrote down songs. Once the tape machine was created, the BBC sent out people in the 1950s to record and collect what were left in the countryside. Things changed so much with the proliferation of record players, radio, television, and pop music. It swamped a lot of the tradition. I understand why, but I never quite saw why you’d give up your beautiful tradition for something with built-in obsolescence, if you judge pop music that way [laughs].
On TCB’s self-titled debut, the Chicago trio reverberates with a languid cacophony over the course of four long-form improvised compositions that add up to a ninety-six-minute listen. The group, composed of Adam Tramposh, Carlos Chavarria, and Ben Billington, is resplendent in Chicago experimental music stalwarts. While a ninety-six-minute record of anything could be, well, pushing it, TCB’s refined curation manages to capture the listener’s attention throughout. The release affords freakouts galore, but most shocking are the moments of stark, minimalist beauty, like the beginning of the fourth piece. It’s a reminder of the variety you might see at a basement in the city: punk rockers playing with jazz cats and noise heads. It’s a wonderful artistic ecosystem.
On their self-titled debut EP, New York three-piece Soaker channel the jagged abrasion of the amphetamine reptile catalogue. But using an entire label as a springboard to describe a band is like using a person’s place of birth to explain how they came to be who they are. Like, for instance, I was born in Los Angeles. I only lived there for two years, and though I learned some skills that I still use today, like, you know, how to walk and how to speak, I’m not exactly emblematic of a person from LA. Thank God. “Sendhi,” the first track on the four-song EP, is a deceptively catchy noise rock anthem that sounds like the three band members each shotgunned cans full of adrenal glands. Trying to feel tough? You could do a lot worse than spinning this hot slab.
If you spend more than a few minutes with either member of Uniform—Ben Greenberg or Michael Berdan—you’ll realize you’re talking to someone deeply empathetic and kind, willing to discuss either personal topics or consider which pie shop in Williamsburg is the best. But under their openness is a lashing restlessness, a quiet discomfort with being human and being slave to biological routines that becomes very loud when the two take a stage.
Perfect World, their band’s debut LP, saw Berdan’s scathing, analytical lyrics dwell on the significance of identity loss, being done wrong, consumption, and the fight against your own chemistry. Ghosthouse, the band’s upcoming 12” on Sacred Bones condenses all the viscera of Perfect World and kicks up both the throb-o-meter and the personal darkness. The title track, easily one of the band’s best songs, sees Berdan considering his lifelong battles with insomnia and depression, detailing dark hours as “the ghosts come out at night.” But there’s a big difference between giving into the ghosts, though, and shining a light on them—Berdan’s lyrics being clearly an instance of the latter, exposing his personalized dread, and moving past it.
When he’s not submerging himself in his own anxiety, Berdan’s watching someone else’s, kicking back with a horror movie. I’ve gotten some amazing recommendations from him—mind-melting shit likeThe Visitor, Bone Tomahawk, Wake in Fright, andFound. But what would you expect? Pairing Berdan’s knowledge and love of horror movies with his output in Uniform makes sense—after all, in a lot of ways, Uniform is a meditation on fear. We talked to Berdan about horror movies, and you can read his thoughts after the jump.
The video for “The Flower Tree” opens in what I assume is Daniel Bachman’s house. A camera pans across a lightly-decorated mantel, scanning across art, photographs, burnt sage, and a crab handling a cigarette, before fading into a mesmerizing live rendering of the piece, a cut from his upcoming self-titled album. As anyone familiar with Bachman knows, his performances are profoundly moving, rooted in the hypnotic finger-picking patterns of the American primitive tradition. A life-long student of older American music and history, Bachman could not have had a more perfect genesis for the Appalachia-influenced style of guitar playing. Born near Fredericksburg, Virginia, he has since become more or less a fixture of North Carolina’s triangle area. At its most basic, "The Flower Tree" is a country-blues song, but characterizing the piece as such does a disservice to its intricacy. Drone elements become more central, as do violent and varied strums, all of which points to Bachman's ever-developing compositional prowess.
“He died at New York Presbyterian—no one came to visit him,” ends “N.Y. Presbyterian,” the second song on Mommy’s debut LP Songs About Children (for the inimitable Toxic State Records). Mommy draws from many traditions, most notably Japanese hardcore and noisecore. Mike Caiazzo’s scathing, relentless words sound like they’re being delivered through a cheese grater; this guttural voice foregrounds Tye Miller’s noise-crusted bass and Ian Graye’s pummeling drums. While the band’s stage antics sometimes border on the cartoonish, lyrically things couldn’t be more serious. Documenting slices of life from Caiazzo’s time in and out of hospitals and other insidious institutions devoted to helping “at-risk individuals,” Songs of Children is a heavy listen, grounded in the very real failings of mental health establishments at large. Though Mommy has shared bills with Burning Spirits pioneers Death Side, the group's sounds are less anthemic and definitely less positive, coming more from the school of Gai, The Swankys, or Ghoul. Still, few bands have sounded exactly like Mommy, and even fewer have addressed these themes with such an unflinching eye.