I forget sometimes, sitting in my little studio apartment, the lives that go on directly beyond my four whitewashed walls. Then, later on, leaning over the balcony the first day the sun makes its remarkable summer comeback, I meet my neighbors for a short conversation that lasts just as long as our encounters in the hallway or in the elevator. Alone, I wonder what they are really like. What they do and what they think; how they survive and make sense of everything.
I imagine that this is what Charles Spearin (founding member of Do Make Say Think and multi-instrumentalist for Broken Social Scene) must have thought many times before he started The Happiness Project. Simply put, The Happiness Project uses the inflections of ordinary human speech as a springboard to compose music. On the surface, it is music and performance art, but beneath the sounds lurks a microcosm of modern urban life.
One of my more idiosyncratic musical interests is exploring the countless faceless indie pop hordes that littered late ‘80s British alternative rock. Largely forgotten except by specialist bloggers and people who dig into musty record stacks to pull out import singles that haven’t been played in 20 years (i.e. me), these sorts of mid- to lower-tier British alt-rock bands were quite common on the UK Indie Charts at the time, in addition to taking up residence in the late night environs of famed BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s underground-friendly program. The average sound of these groups was jangly/distorted ‘60s-infused guitar pop, performed with a ramshackle amateurishness that betrayed their lack of technique. To be blunt, there was no mistaking these guys and gals for ‘80s Brit alt-rock guitar icons Johnny Marr or John Squire, much less any more conventional axe heroes. Sure, the majority of these bands weren’t even close to filling the paisley and anoraks of top-flight contemporaries like the Stone Roses and the Wedding Present, but for me, their charm comes from their simple, almost instinctive melodicism and song structures—simple pop hewn out of rough bits and unassuming bobs. Oh, and I always get a kick out of their affinity for bowl-fringe haircuts and leather jackets.
So: the Popguns. Hailing from Brighton, England, the Popguns featured among its membership former Wedding Present drummer Shaun Carmen and jazzy-voiced singer Wendy Morgan. From an instrumental standpoint, they weren’t terribly distinctive: ringing chords, guitar fuzz, and a rhythm section fond of throwing in numerous fills in order to liven up otherwise straightforward grooves. Excuse me while I dig for this exact same thing in the Creation, 53 & 3rd, and Sarah Records back catalogues (hey, I like this sound, but it was certainly ubiquitous to the point of being cookie-cutter).
What really makes the group special is Wendy Morgan’s keening voice, which infuses each track with a wistful sepia-toned longing that nevertheless sounds filled with hopeful possibilities. Coupled with the music, you get a very plausible sonic template for American East Coast indie Anglophiles Velocity Girl. Beginning with their 1988 debut single “Where Do You Go?”, the Popguns put out ten singles and four albums on a slew of indie labels, including Medium Cool, Midnight Music, and Third Stone, over the course of a decade. They seem to have dropped off the face of the earth after the release of A Plus de Cent in 1996, which is a shame considering indie-inclined music critics have a soft spot these days for noise pop bands like Vivian Girls, whom I’m certain have been listening to the exact same British indie records I have been for the last few years.
How about a taste of the band’s output? Here’s a video for the Popguns’ second single, “Landslide”:
Next up is what is possibly the band’s best song, “Waiting for the Winter”. I first heard this on the Rough Trade Shops: Indiepop 1 compilation, and it kills me every time with its urgent hooks and energy.
And from the group’s second album Smog (1991), here’s the single “Still a World Away”:
The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).
It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)
When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.
Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:
Music of the Carousel (1961) Sounds of Sea Animals (1955) Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965) Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971) American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009) Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964) Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975) Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956) Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975) Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973) Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)
Question: What happens when you put members of the Stooges and the MC5—two of the rawest, most powerful bands of their day—in a band together? You end up with the five minutes of sustained awesomeness that is “City Slang”.
Sonic’s Rendezvous Band featured drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith from the aforementioned Detroit protopunk groups. After those ensembles imploded in the early 1970s, Smith assembled the band and cut “City Slang”. Due to internal band tension, the planned b-side “Electrophonic Tonic” was pulled prior to the single’s 1978 release. But in a maneuver of sheer ballsy simplicity, the group remedied the situation by simply placing “City Slang” on both sides of vinyl, in mono and stereo version.
Now, any rock song of that breaches the five-minute mark (much less one that appears on both sides of a vinyl single) needs to have either an interesting composition, a hypnotic quality, or tons of charisma to keep listeners engaged. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band opted for the latter, delivering a powerful rocker with lurching grooves and a stuttering vocal hook. There’s a killer bass breakdown in the middle, and a great ending where the band just rides out chord progression as Smith’s guitar delivers pummeling eighth-note rhythms. The group even works in a piano into its assault. To think, this was the only material released while the band was still active. In a time when punk was insisting that rock had to be short, fast, and loud, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band demonstrated to the new kids that two out of three could be even better.
If I were to pick a definitive Smashing Pumpkins song, it would be the overlooked nugget “Hello Kitty Kat”, originally released as a b-side to the single “Today” in 1993, and later rounded up as part of the 1994 rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot. To me, the best Pumpkins songs always resembled huge swaths of color. The group was never afraid to be vulnerable or full-on rock monsters, and often did both in the same song, all while constructing walls of melodic guitar fuzz that built up to explosive finishes. “Hello Kitty Kat” is the Pumpkins at their best, incorporating all those factors while firing on all cylinders on a roller coaster of a song until the track practically collapses in on itself.
Speaking of melodic guitar fuzz, “Hello Kitty Kat” is sick with it. It’s no coincidence that frontman Billy Corgan’s best material was written between 1990 and 1996, a period when the man seemed inseparable from his Big Muff guitar pedal. Unlike lesser alt-rock guitarists, Corgan knew how to use the pedal in a way that the tone it generated enhanced his guitar parts instead of overwhelming them. The sounds Corgan coaxed out of his Fender Stratocaster thus served as the perfect missing link between psychedelia and grunge. That’s why I can never get hung up on Corgan’s nasally vocals like many of the band’s detractors do. At their artistic height the Pumpkins’ chief strengths were A) the guitars, and B) the arrangements. The more focus on both of those aspects, the better the song generally turned out. On “Hello Kitty Kat”, Corgan’s vocals are mixed unusually low, sounding insubstantial next to the architectural wonder he has constructed with his arsenal of guitar tracks.