The North Dakota 4-Track Extravaganza
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an unusual occurrence here.
Why would Secretly Canadian, the record label that has fostered great acts like Jens Lekman and the Earlies, release a staggering three-disc/53-song album of unreleased songs by an artist that most people have never even heard of? The answer is simple: because it’s this very set that could make June Panic an indie-rock star.
In most occurrences where you’re releasing three discs of unheard material, your name is Prince. Yet in the case of Songs from Purgatory, its origins are actually very humble; June Panic was a kid who loved making music. It didn’t matter where he recorded—four-tracks, cassette recorders, and anything else available was fair game for Panic’s homespun batch of lo-fi basement pop. He recorded himself, his own bands, and his friends’ bands, manually copying the finished tapes en masse for local distribution (all detailed through in this set’s witty liner notes). For years he recorded songs, and all those old cassettes quickly added up: at last count he had over 200 tapes from that ‘91-96 period. He later went on to do the touring/signing to a label/releasing a real album kind of thing (his debut came out on Secretly Canadian in 1999), but those boxes of tapes sat quietly in his parent’s basement. Unfortunately, that particular North Dakota basement experienced a flash flood in 1997, rendering many of those tapes useless. Upon hearing this, June gathered them all up one day and brought those tapes back to life through a time-consuming cleaning process, all before handing them over for remastering. The end result (fitting title and all) is Songs from Purgatory.
June Panic often gets compared to a young Bob Dylan, but such a reference doesn’t really make sense in the long run of things: he occasionally picks up a harmonica to go with his acoustic, but the similarities stop there. If other artists need to be referenced, then Panic sounds like Guided By Voices at their poppiest (“I Am a Scientist” is actually a real good jump-off point for sound comparisons). Admittedly, Panic’s very nasal voice is a hard thing for the uninitiated to get past, but like all the other great non-singing folkies that came before him, his songs are structured in such a way that his voice is practically its own instrument (which is a good thing considering that we have a hard time clearly hearing his lyrics).
What’s so fascinating about Songs from Purgatory is how this three-disc set really creates its own universe of tape-hiss pop music: we have radio-ready hits, oddball experimental works, electronic-leaning numbers, unyieldingly sweet ballads and crushing rock anthems. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be: here we get a microscopic look at an artist developing from just a kid with a guitar into an extraordinary songwriter. Along the way we get the missed opportunities, the moments of utter brilliance, and everything in-between. In a way, Songs from Purgatory is like growing up with a teenage kid in only three hours time. By the time you spin the near-ballad “Hate Yr Blues” at the end of the third disc, you’ll feel like you’ve known June Panic all your life.
The weirdest thing about this album is how it’s not arranged in chronological order, but it sure as hell feels like it is. Disc One doesn’t have a lot of full-bodied songs to speak of, but it has the frameworks for greatness. “The Catcher In the Whole Wheat” is all catchy riff-rockin’ guitars and church organs over a mid-tempo beat (making it a great 180-second bite of pop joy), all while “Long, Long Stem” feels like a Pixies song as-interpreted by an early Old 97s. There are small gems spread throughout (like “Dreams Are Hard to Follow”, a great driving-down-the-highway song as long as you’re driving under a cloudy sky that’s ringing with lightning), but most tracks still cry out as that song where June discovered a new instrument effect and was just dying to play with it. “Ripe Grape” is one such example, as it uses his electric’s wah-wah effect to excessive (and grating) effect. “Dumb Stories” tries too hard to be aggressive and sweet at the same time, “Second Virginity” is very much a product of the early 90s grunge aesthetic (which is a mixed blessing in itself), and “Lawrence Welk Plaster Caster (Part Two)” is just downright embarrassing. Yet, it’s in hearing these slip-ups and one-offs that ultimately make the bright spots shine even brighter…
... and most of those bright spots are on Disc Two. Even with its lack of chronology, the second disc feels like the logical extension of the first, as the tunes featured here just feel stronger—a better sense of melodicism, catchier hooks, the works. The fact that it opens with a song that could’ve been a hit for Pavement (“That Parade”) should give you some idea of where Panic’s sound was heading. Aside from the regrettable death-rock of the excellently-titled-but-poorly-executed “Tina Turner (The Devil is Sorry)”, Disc Two could easily have been passed off as a Greatest Hits for some other lo-fi-leaning artist. The wounded, sincere folk of “Cardinal Virtues” would easily lose its charm if glossed over with a thick coat of studio sheen, but here it sounds damn near perfect. When the drum-machine pops in halfway through, it actually doesn’t harm the song at all; it just gives the swooning ballad a bit of edge. From that point on, the highlights just roll off the tongue: the why-hasn’t-this-been-covered-to-death number “Death of My ‘Significant Other’ (By God)”, the barn-burning country-rock of “Snellgrove Sucks”, the gorgeous “Sample and Hold”, and the burned-out guitar fuzz rocker “Co-Op Tune”. Some of it’s lightweight, some of it’s deep, but nearly all of it is top-shelf.
If Songs from Purgatory was June Panic’s entire career, then Disc One would be his “finding his voice” works, Disc Two would be his critically raved masterpieces, and Disc Three gives us a glimpse of a master who is past his prime but still experiments wildly while occasionally coming up with a song or two that easily rivals his hey-day. “Recipes” jump-starts this album, and—unlike most of Disc One—this track sounds absolutely effortless. There’s a DIY MOR rock vibe bleeding through it (BTW), but it all builds to a solid climax with June’s nasal whine bleeding right into mic feedback to the point where it’s hard to differentiate the two. When Panic opens “All Girls” with the line “all girls are kinda pretty”, he makes an inadvertent reference to the great Lou Reed song “Women”. The similarity between the two is that they both have achingly simple laments that still work largely because they’re so achingly simple. “Satan Star” is the sound of Dan Deacon with absolutely no budget, “The Sad & the Stupid” is the prom night anthem for a high school with only 20 students, and the shifting number “The Intro” careens from gorgeous folk instrumental to lo-fi indie rock without blinking an eye. Unfortunately, we’re also treated to songs like “Required Thinking Exercise” and the experimental/incomprehensible “Jesus-Christ-Fucka-Sucka-Mobile”. When Disc Three clicks, it really clicks, but it just doesn’t have the same end-to-end impact that it’s preceding cousin had. Disc Three does, however, contain June Panic’s own “I Am a Scientist”-level pop number, the instant-classic “Lonely for Lonely’s Sake”. When people are defending indie-rock in all its goodness during a heated debate, this is the song that they should refer to in order to emerge victorious.
Songs from Purgatory is, truly, a journey. It’s the best of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s underground as filtered through the bedroom of a kid from North Dakota. There’s ups, there’s downs, there’s some really bad songs mixed in with plenty of good, great, and spectacular numbers as well. Secretly Canadian is offering this on its website for only 13 bucks, which is a helluva deal for snagging the basis of someone’s entire musical legacy. Purgatory isn’t essential listening, nor is it a landmark of any sort. All it is is just a collection of really good songs. And in cases like this one, that’s all that you really need.