Lo-fi, Obscure and Classic Covers, Lots of Solo Ambles
James McNew’s solo moniker plays off his talents in typically sly form. Does “dump” mean a heap of lo-fi recordings piled up and left for us if not him to sift? May it allude to defecation and its results? He’s not telling, but Morr Music releases, for the first time in wider distribution, his 1993 and 1994 albums. Recorded on a four-track cassette recorder, the choice of these as remasters by skilled technician Bob Weston may seem odd, given the quite humble origins of McNew’s side project.
When the former bassist for Christmas joined Yo La Tengo for their album May I Sing With Me (1992), he gave Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley the additional talent of a third multi-instrumentalist. That eclectic indie-rock band, with its core duo of husband and wife, now added its solid anchor. McNew’s wistful voice, if seemingly at odds with his stance on stage compared to his bandmates, continues to enrich YLT. Some of these Dump tracks feature Yo La Tengo, but as I was only provided a download file by the label, I cannot ascertain who contributed what to which of the many tracks.
Meanwhile, McNew’s work under the Dump title continued with for his cassette of Prince covers That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice? (2001) and Grown-Ass Man (2003). As alongside Kaplan and Hubley, McNew on his own veers between many moods and explore sharply detailed or woozily vague song styles. As with YLT, McNew possesses a vast knowledge of music, able to pluck out odd or obscure songs to cover, along with fresh takes on more familiar tunes from rock and pop.
The blend of his quiet voice and pastoral wonder, as heard on a cover of Hoboken, N.J.‘s Fish and Roses’ “The Letter” on 1994’s I Can Hear Music to splendid if modest effect with organ accompaniment, recalls the mid-period ballads of YLT, or its near-neighbors The Feelies. “Flap My Arms” chimes along with an effort, shifting between assertive guitar and more composed singing under the bashing. “Don’t Let On” clatters on in the shambling style of New Zealand bands from the ‘80s on the Flying Nun label; the fidelity also recalls the limited budgets shared by that label’s roster and McNew’s tape.
“Wanted Man” from Bob Dylan has a bare-bones yee-haw jangle in Dump’s version; I reckon McNew’s selection to serenade with the Fugs’ “Morning Morning” may surprise fans even if they can match his vinyl collection. “Vienna” by Ultravox keeps the metronomic drone of the original, but strips away the sheen to reveal a drum and organ, with “this means nothing to me” as if sung to one’s self, enhancing the desolation and increasing the impact, sans New Romantic gloss.
The homespun nature of this collection ambles along in similarly unassuming form. The Eno-esque “Dear Betty Baby” sustains the New Zealand marine swirl of its stoic pop. Even when the amps buzz, as in the title track, these songs suit one’s own bedroom rather than the family garage.
However, as the second disc’s later tracks such as a pricklier “Acupuncture” insist, it’s clear McNew listened to Pavement and Archers of Loaf as many of us did who gravitated towards the smarter side of post-punk, lo-fi, literate, and quirky indie rock 20-odd years ago. The Pavement-friendly, caffeinated yelps, strained phrasings, and lyrical swoops frequently appear on the previous year’s Superpowerless; I note as a coincidence that McNew grew up in Charlottesville, where Stephen Malkmus had graduated in history from the University of Virginia before heading back to California.
There’s even more covers on this single-disc album, assembled between 1991 to 1993. Its Pavement-like air (“Secret Affections” could have been a fine b-side off Westing by Musket and Sextant) may be a recommendation to many, or a dissuasion to a few. For me, this spunk conveys very well McNew’s mutual influences. It’s difficult for me to imagine those who don’t like YLT liking Pavement or vice versa, but I betray my affections. “Moon River” gets a polite treatment, that’s all. Sun Ra’s “Outer Spaceways, Inc.” freaks out in expectedly wobbly fashion—I found it annoying, but I am also annoyed by YLT’s cover of Sun Ra. “Ode to Shaggs’ Own Thing” reverberates with McNew’s echoed guitar twang and organ pitched tribute to an even more eccentric ensemble.
Quincy Jones co-wrote with Georgia Hubley’s animator parents John and Faith “So Sedimentary”. Suffice to say it’s a curio. Wreckless Eric’s “Just for You” earns the underwater, tremolo treatment; NRBQ’s “Throw Out the Lifeline” nods as did that band to the Grateful Dead. Don’t come to this pair of albums with any more wish for high-fidelity than the Pavement b-sides from their reissues a few years ago. All the same, under Weston’s attention to whatever detail could be rescued from four-track tapes, the results should meet the expectations of listeners who know what to expect from McNew.
Overall, while Yo La Tengo fans will naturally welcome these reissues, others eager to hear these covers may wish to seek out Dump’s return to the stores. As originally these records were even by indie standards hard to find, it’s a pleasure to hail their unassuming airs and off-beat excursions into the influences which continue to inspire Yo La Tengo and its nimble bassist and co-conspirator when it comes to switching instruments and kicking out jams or shuffling out unpredictable rock standards.