Musical polymath Tim Taylor shuffled off this mortal coil way back on 23 May 1997, killed in a car crash in his 30th year of life and his sixth or seventh year serving as the spiritual center and musical inspiration for Brainiac. They were a Dayton, Ohio quartet that remains one of the great – and lost – indie bands of the 1990s.
On 21 June, to celebrate Record Store Day, Touch and Go Records – the home to the band for its years of finest output – released a pair of limited-run Brainiac double-LPs: a reconsidering of the legend, complete with remastered singles and B-sides, and Attic Tapes, an overflowing collection of Taylor home demos. The former is an engaging listen, a true trip for anyone who missed these guys in their epic prime. The latter, however, is nothing short of brilliant – a glimpse inside Taylor’s working mind, and proof, if any more is needed, that he remains one of the most original and fertile musical minds of the past generation.
Attic Tapes is more than just a serving of half-thought-out or never-cooked Brainiac outtakes – far, far from it. On the double LP, whose carefully sequenced 37 tracks are illuminating in many more facets and ways than one, we see the formation of Brainiac and its wanderlust ascent. (No comment from those wondering where the Wizbangs demos went.) The collection has it all – from fully formed band exercises (“Still Insane Velveteen”, “Toby’s International”, “Signal Flow”, an early take on “Hot Metal Dobermans” titled “Banzai Superstar”) and four-track roots of songs that later fully blossomed (two great takes on “Silver Iodine”, a fuzzy demo of “Cookie Don’t Sing”) to wonderful ephemera, like “Indian Poker Pt. 0″, an early version of “Kiss Me, You Jacked-Up Jerk”, even the origins of some great Taylor synth work (“Dr. Fingers”).
There are Brainiac tunes you might have only heard live if you were lucky enough to catch the quartet opening for the Breeders or the Jesus Lizard (“Subsurface Genderflux”). Also, there are second thoughts on existing work, like Taylor’s interwoven funk guitar on “Flypaper Jam”, whose original version was culled from 1994’s Bonsai Superstar. You even hear what Taylor was singing underneath all those mountains of special effects on “Collide”, with a somber – and somewhat straight-laced – ballad dubbed “Oh Donna Collage”. (“Factotum” and “Swan Song” also offer some unexpected colors.)
But, listening to the record from top to bottom reveals deeper blessings and deeper truths. For musicians and the instrument-inclined, the double-LP surely will take and transport you back to your garage-band or basement-band roots, when band rehearsals were cut to cassette tape via Dictaphone recorders and whatever mics you could muster. It’s got all the sweat and dreams you remember; to hell with fidelity, this trip down memory lane will blow your mind. And, the more you listen, the more you hear Taylor as a product of his time, a descendent of New Wave and Devo, yes, but also as a ’90s punk trying to come to terms with the aftermath of the grunge explosion and the damage done..
There’s brilliant, incomplete stuff on Attic Tapes. “Sidewalk Culture’s” vocal delivery hints at ’80s hip-hop. “All I Have Is Stolen” is mangy, Guided By Voices-style pop. There are variations on the main guitar line of “Status”, while Choke” opens the tune to entirely new universes (“Wrecked Choke Riffs”). Plus, there’s a particularly juicy breakdown of “Sexual Frustration”, a lo-fi tune whose guitars cut in and out of focus (“Horses & Ammunition #1”). You could write volumes about each of the tracks.
There’s also a lot that’s somewhat prepped and ready for delivery here. “Charles”, the double LP’s 19th track, offers the barren, haunted synth structures of Brainiac’s 1997 swan-song EP Electro-Shock For President but is also too funky, complete with descending Hammond on the choral bridge, to fit on that outing. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating outtake and another great example of Taylor giving his vocal all-falsetto to seal the delivery. (The drums collapsing at the end is priceless.)
Attic Tapes also marks the first commercial release of the band’s “final demos”, which they were preparing for Interscope Records at the time of Taylor’s death. Titled “Ask” and “Stealing Flowers”, these two tracks – of an estimated six – show the band was in top form in its closing moments, which makes the suddenness of Taylor’s death even more tragic. This stuff has been well-mined – I remember finding it in the very early days of Napster – but it’s still worth including, as it paints a full portrait of Taylor and his abilities.
Attic Tapes might be Record of the Year material for those who followed Brainiac back in the day. And it might also be a gem solely for completists. Only time will determine how well this abundant little collection fits into the band’s mighty canon. It’s a fascinating portrait of a musician gone far, far too soon – and further buttresses the thesis that Taylor was the epicenter of the band, the inspiring figure from which all sprang. Somebody get Corey Rusk on the phone: we need more copies of this magic to circulate to the unwashed hordes.