You need not be popular to break the rules, and you need not be popular to break your own conventions.
Though the first two days of DETOURS probed the hidden secrets found in discographies of McCartney, Sinatra, Garth Brooks, and more, that doesn’t mean that chart-topping success is the only place where eccentricity can happen; quite the opposite, in fact. J. Mascis remains one of the most vital guitar players in all of rock music, and yet even he still has time to release a spiritual album, much as how Yo La Tengo can release a disc of sloppy, by-request covers, OMD can release an album of tape collages at the height of their popularity, and even the Buzzcocks can get together to try some techno experiments. You may not be well-versed in Joe Ely’s discography, but you don’t need to be in order to appreciate his love of Apple computers, much as how you don’t need to know the intricate details of every Kiss album to appreciate their much-maligned “serious” album Music from “The Elder”. Sometimes the very best music is being crafted right on the fringes of the mainstream, and it is for that reason that in the catalogs of eccentric artists you will find some of rock music’s greatest DETOURS. Evan Sawdey
The tacit assumption in these types of lists is often that the album being discussed is one of the band in question’s least listenable; a hilarious misfire puffed-full of pomposity. But when considering the Kiss catalog, you can do worse than their 1981 concept album, Music from “The Elder”. Strikingly misguided (the album’s original packaging did not feature a single band shot but instead devoted the gatefold to an overwrought, under-written plot outline), head-scratchingly odd (Lou Reed receives co-writing credit on three songs, while current David Letterman and ex-Kiss ghost-drummer Anton Fig receives it on one), and an obvious attempt to jumpstart their mostly stalling career, it has come in time to feel like one of the band’s most human albums—an unintended tribute to the awkward, vulnerable, fantasy world-loving adolescent who was uncomfortably concealed by most heavy metal fans and the band itself. It was like they finally had taken a break from proving how easy it was for them to get laid and retreated into the basement for a Saturday night of Dungeons & Dragons.
Based on a story by bassist Gene Simmons (with production by The Wall‘s Bob Ezrin), the band envisioned it as a launching pad into possible media cross-overs. The story involves a boy chosen by the Elder, a group who “since the dawn of time ... have watched silently over a virgin world” to combat an evil “whose sole purpose is to destroy all that is good.” The style didn’t fit the band (they were from New York City after all) and the musical results are uneven at best. Disgruntled guitarist Ace Frehely, who was wholly opposed to the project, contributes the album’s coolest song, “Dark Light”, while elsewhere the band feels buried under the weight of selling a story that was barely there. That weight pulls down songs like “Under the Rose”, “Mr. Blackwell”, and “Only You”, which are near- to almost complete-rockers, while the album’s weakest tracks mix in new-ageisms and anemic production, making the album feel almost bipolar.
The band’s hopes for a multi-media sensation were over before they began when Kiss fans completely turned their backs on the album, causing it to debut at the lower-end of the Billboard charts where it lingered for barely four months. Still, you’re kidding yourself if you think for a second that Gene Simmons hasn’t had at least a few business lunches to discuss the possibility of relaunching this thing on Broadway. The band hewed closer to their trademarks on their next album, the excellent Creatures of the Night, and have kept their distance from concept albums and prog-rock ever since. Jon Langmead
“The Oath/I [TV Appearance]”
Anyone who’s ever been to a Yo La Tengo show knows that this indie rock mainstay is also one of the world’s best cover bands, navigating record collector obscurities and radio cheese with equal enthusiasm and aplomb. They’ve even done the requisite mostly-covers album in 1990’s Fakebook to prove the point. But ... Is Murdering the Classics is different, because it collects the off-the-cuff covers that Yo La Tengo recorded for WFMU fundraising marathons every year from 1996 to 2003. During these sessions Ira, Georgia, and James would literally take phone requests from listeners and bang through whatever the station’s record-obsessive audience desired—from classics like the Stooges’ “Raw Power” and the X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours” to oddities like the “Meet the Mets” song. There are a few train wrecks—the cover of Yes’s “Roundabout” comes to mind—but mostly it’s amazing that they can even fake these songs. And a set-closing medley that mashes up “My Sharona”, “Sonic Reducer”, “God Only Knows”, and “Another Girl Another Planet” (among others), is worth the trip all by itself. Jennifer Kelly
Joe Ely’s discography—stretching over some 30-odd years—will never be described as “wildly eclectic”. His albums all contain essentially Texas road-hawg/border-town tales, with ample songs by his bandmates in the Flatlanders, and a fair amount of Buddy Holly influence to boot. Think roadhouses, outlaws, and the open road. Guitars and horses, accordions and dirt. Mexican love songs on battered radios. Even when his coolness factor was upped by the Clash taking him out on tour as a UK opener in 1980, he was still up there blasting out Texas music. Hi-Res is and isn’t another story, which is what makes it so strange. In 1984, Ely was so captivated by Apple computers that he made this album, where the guitars are joined by guitar synthesizers, other synthesizers, and electric drums. In the liner notes, “computer artists” are credited with the pixilated cover art. There’s a “digital editing and remix” credit for one song. There’s this note to fans: “Got a modem? Know someone who does? Have your modem dial ...” to get in touch with Ely. The image of Ely in cowboy hat and boots sitting at his ‘80s computer boggles the mind when it’s translated into an album. Hi-Res was originally imagined, according to his website, to be the soundtrack of “a LP-length video about a cowboy hobo transplanted to the digital age.” Why it sounds so strange is that it isn’t a wholesale reinvention; the cowboy hobo is just as dominant as the digital age. There’s Lloyd Maines on pedal steel, right there with the synthesizers. There are still hot guitar licks, still songs about “rockin’ juke joints”, Pancho Villa, Houston, Texas, and “patent leather high heel shoes”. With the possible exception of the future-looking “Dream Camera”, these songs could fit on any Joe Ely album, and some of them have. “Letter to Laredo” became the title track of his 1995 border-town classic, while “Cool Rockin’ Loretta” became a live staple. To listen to Hi-Res is to enter some bizarro world where the cowboys are building spaceships and the highway balladeers are writing songs on computers. A world more like today, maybe? Dave Heaton
“What’s Shakin’ Tonight?”
(Virgin; US: 15 Apr 2008; UK: 3 Mar 2008)
Dazzle Ships might well have been subtitled “How to Cut Your Audience by 90% in Just Two Years!”; or, “Why You Shouldn’t Accept Concept Ideas from Your Record Company’s Art Director”. OMD were poised on the brink of superstardom after 1981’s Architecture & Morality sold over three million copies worldwide. The band were stuck for what to do next until art director Peter Saville suggested Dazzle Ships. Named after a World War II paint scheme used to camouflage huge warships, the album had a similar effect on OMD’s newfound commercial success. With spoken-word sound collages about the horrors of technology (“ABC Auto Industry”), ethereal ballads about the atrocities committed by Nicaraguan dictators (“International”), and a “song” made up entirely of field recordings of time-stamp announcements, Dazzle Ships was a shocking development from a band who had already scored hits with songs about Hiroshima and Joan of Arc. It stands as one of the most unorthodox releases ever by a major pop artist. Though the album made the UK Top Ten, in the end its worldwide sales crawled to 300,000. Amazingly, OMD survived, albeit with a much more conservative sound on later hits like “So in Love”. Today, Dazzle Ships is rightly considered a lost classic, a sort of Kid A created before Thom Yorke was old enough to drive. John Bergstrom
Björk is an artist that’s primarily known for her often ostentatious, but always present, enigmatic personality. Be it her attire, public freakouts, or her not-quite-dance-music dance music, Björk has been banished into the hazily defined art-pop atmosphere. But for all of the inaccuracies in her public perception, her 2004 release Medulla—a record constructed of various beat-boxing samples, guttural throat thumps, and spacious hymns—doesn’t help her case. Her previous work accepted its own level of inaccessibility but Medulla struggles with the pop-art dichotomy Björk has perfected throughout her career. Essentially, Medulla is an album-long experiment rather than an album proper—Björk’s studio musings grafted onto a disc and released to an adoring fanbase. For every track that exudes her desire to get her glowstick on (“Who Is It”, “Where Is the Line”, “Desired Constellation”) there are just as many that are begging for people to shrug their shoulders in baffled disbelief (”Öll Birtan”, “Submarine”, “Ancestors”).
And yet, those that are familiar with Björk weren’t entirely surprised by Medulla, or at least the idea of it. It seemed logical enough that she would eventually come to something like this. But even with early reports of the record’s concept, when it smokes out of speakers, Medulla becomes an album that makes almost entirely no sense. Chris Gaerig
Following their groundbreaking They Threw Us All in a Trench and Put a Monument on It, these Brooklyn art-punks took the unusual second-album strategy of A) firing their kick-ass rhythm section, B) retiring to the wilds of New Jersey, and C) making a concept album about witches. The result confounded mainstream media, who were probably not ready for Liars in any case. Spin memorably called They Were Wrong, So We Drowned “unlistenable”, while Billboard chipped in with “a giant step backward”. And yet, an album as dense, abrasive, and daring as this one takes repeated listens. Its nightmarish grooves (“Broken Witch”, “There’s Always Room on the Broom”) jitter to life as you become accustomed to their blurping, rasping electro-beats. The chant-sung, boom-and-clank “We Fenced Other Houses with Bones of Our Own” turns into a twisted anthem over time, its “Fly, fly, the devil’s in your eye / Shoot shoot” refrain lodging inexorably in your brainstem. In hindsight, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned seems the natural bridge from Trench‘s ominous dance-punk to Drum’s Not Dead‘s percussion-and-drone experimentalism. It was a difficult but necessary step for a band that never had—let alone stuck to—a comfort zone. Jennifer Kelly
“There’s Always Room on the Broom”
There are certain artists that you never expect (or even want) to release an introspective acoustic song-cycle. Mark E. Smith, for example ... or the Ying Yang Twins. I would’ve included Ron House among their number, but then his sensitive solo record Obsessed hit the racks in 2002, and now I believe anything’s possible. You might remember Ron House as the “natural drinker and problem singer” for Ohio-based indie rockers Great Plains, creators of classic odes to Dick Clark, Rutherford B. Hayes, and early indie yuppies (“Isn’t my haircut really intense? / Isn’t Nick Cave a genius in a sense?”). Later, as the frontman for Ohio garage-snots the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, he gave us such classics such as “Internet Is Just Bad Pot” and “(Bombs Away on the) RnR Hall of Fame!” (“I don’t wanna see Eric Clapton’s stuffed baby!” “Blow it up before Steve Albini gives a speech!”). He is snarky, noisy, sexual, and usually soused—an American original who drinks from the same river that spawned Robert Pollard. Which is why Obsessed—complete with its cover photo of Ronald gazing sensitively skyward—seems like something of a joke. But no, this is all very serious, even though House takes great pains to inform us that these tender, emotional songs are not about him, but about a friend’s emotional life spiraling out of control. Right, whatever. What we have here are twelve slow-paced, drum-free acoustic tunes (occasionally accented with electric guitars), which focus on a very self-aware asshole begging for forgiveness and/or understanding. Songs like “Dick” (“I’m a dick without a leg to stand on”) and “Restraining Order” cover the territory you expect, while “Triangular Obsession” and the Beach Boys crypto-homage “Puritan Sex” are almost popwise. Yet to those unfamiliar with House’s expansive and hilarious garage-punk oeuvre, this will sound like a grating hybrid of Daniel Johnston and Gilbert Gottfried. Worse still, Obsessed is, as far as I know, the last recorded evidence that Ron House wants to touch us with his music. Not a peep since then, no Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, no Great Plains oldies singles, nothing. But let’s look on the bright side: the talky cadences, back-seat “melodies”, and expansive sense of the absurd here remind me of none other than Kimya Dawson, which means Obsessed should find its place in the New Weird Americana canon sometime soon. Right next to Devendra Banhart. Got it, Ron? Mark Desrosiers
It’s 1993. You are Matt Johnson—aka The The—one of the UK’s truly maverick pop artists, and a cult hero. Your latest album, Dusk, has met with widespread critical acclaim. It’s also been a commercial success, reaching number two in the UK album chart and dominating college radio in the US. You’ve solidified that success by playing to tens of thousands on a North American tour supporting Depeche Mode. What do you do next? Well, you wait a couple of years and release an album of Hank Williams covers, of course. Released in February 1995, Hanky Panky was met with bafflement from critics and fans alike. The critics bashed it, and the fans binned it; in fact, Hanky Panky reached no higher than #28 in the UK. It undid all the positive momentum Dusk had created faster than you can say “Hey, good lookin’!” Billed by Johnson as “the first in an occasional series of albums celebrating the great singer/songwriters”, Hanky Panky was not surprisingly the last The The album recorded for Sony. Johnson has only managed one album since. It’s too bad, because Hanky Panky is actually a very listenable, even poignant collection. Williams’s brooding pop songs are lent even more darkness and shade in Johnson’s usual brooding style. When Hank’s actual voice shows up in a sample at the end of “I Can’t Escape from You”, the moment is truly haunting. Almost as haunting as what Hanky Panky did to Johnson’s career. John Bergstrom
“I Saw the Light”
Recorded in December 1976, and released January 1977, the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP was the world’s first self-released punk album. And that, according to hardcore DIY-punks, means it was the world’s first punk album, period. Regardless of your opinion on that matter, the Buzzcocks’ manic minimalism ignited the Mancunian punk scene, and inspired musicians of all sorts to scratch their own vinyl for the first time. In 2001, Buzzcocks co-founders Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley reunited for the first time since their work on Spiral Scratch. Devoto had left Buzzcocks for personal reasons shortly after recording Spiral Scratch; he would return to music later in 1977, forming the seminal post-punk band Magazine. ShelleyDevoto debuted in 2002 with the electronic-rocking Buzzkunst. No, “Buzzkunst” isn’t a clever twist on the two musicians’ former band. Well, it’s not just that, in any case: kunst is German for “art”, and “art rock” is the best descriptor for this album simply because this music is too complex to describe in a few words. Yes, Buzzkunst draws on electronic influences. But it also draws from industrial, techno, jazz, and the creators’ own punk and post-punk backgrounds. As a solo artist, Shelley dabbled on the surface of electronic music in the ‘80s, but ShelleyDevoto’s use of electronics is heavier, more experimental, and more vital to its overall sound.
“Can You See Me Shining?” rips open the album, a rocker built on drum machines and marinated in Devoto’s lyrics and dead-man-howling delivery. As diverse as the album is, it still consistently churns out pulsating rhythms to go along with Devoto’s affected snarl—except on the instrumentals, of course. And there are four of those here, from the tick-tocking clockwork of “Strain of Bacteria”, to the industrial menace of “God’s Particle”. Other tracks not to be missed are the gatling-gun drum machine mania of “System Blues”, and the straight-forward punk of “Til the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead”. In dire contrast to those, “So There I Was” is rather like spoken-word poetry accompanied with samples (including applause, footsteps, and laughter), and electronic jazz mutations. In a word: genius.
“I’m lost in the age I’m in”, Devoto intones gently in the opening lines of “A World to Give Away”. Devoto and Shelley are lost in the early ‘80s, make no mistake about that. Electronic and experimental? Definitely. But Buzzkunst has more in common with Cabaret Voltaire than Autechre ... and that’s a good thing. Only by first experimenting with what they knew best could they have deviated from it so brilliantly and created such a satisfyingly peculiar album. L.A. Bryan
“Can You See Me Shining? [Fan Video]”
Alternative rock’s foremost marijuana authority, J. Mascis appears on the cover of J + Friends Sing + Chant for Amma looking as reefer-mad as ever, but his blissful look might have a more divine source this time around. The album is a collection of devotional songs dedicated to living Hindu religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi (aka Amma), to whom Mascis has devoted his album. Naturally, the first thought to pop out of my cold and snarktastic mind was, “Is he being ironic?” The answer is “No”, thank goodness. Er, thank Amma.
While this album may be a bit unexpected from J. Mascis the alternative rocker, his heart is in the right place, and his artistic integrity is refreshingly intact. After all, who wouldn’t want Amma to take them home to divine ecstasy? Seriously. I admire J. Mascis for going out on a limb like this. These days, it’s so hard to use terms like “God”, “the soul”, and “divine ecstasy” unironically when we are still trying to forgive spiritual movements in general, after we were tricked into thinking that Christianity was about love and freedom when it was really about pseudo-governmental oppression. But frankly, in these godless, pre-apocalyptic times, we need god, the soul, and divine ecstasy more than ever. So, I can understand why J. wants to reinvent spirituality with new, more exotic, less familiar terms. What is not reinvented is his hard yet gentle blues. I’m pleased to say that one can still expect Mascis’s signature elegant, ass-kickin’ guitar and beautifully pleading vocals. You feel like you’re listening to your usual Dinosaur Jr. album—acoustic guitars; one, four, five verse-bridge-chorus structure—until Mascis starts scatting in Hindu tongues, and then suddenly you think, “Wow, this guy’s a lot more interesting than I thought.”
All proceeds from the sale of this album go to Amma, an apparently remarkable woman who uses money from good people like J. Mascis to open orphanages, offer healthcare to those who really, really fucking need it, and bring a little peace and love to our zany planet. Chris Lindsey