Post-hardcore was a vague catchall term used in the late-‘80s to describe various advancements being made in the underground scene by aging punks looking for new kicks. Some of the noisier/artier bands that once fell under this description are now categorized as indie-rock, Dinosaur Jr. being a fine example. But many post-HC units were distinct from their peers in that instead of subverting or moving beyond the rudiments of hardcore punk they actively sought to expand the genre into something less rigid or predictable. Probably the two biggest locales for post-HC were Chicago and the Nation’s Capital, and this makes total sense. The Windy City’s geographical position made it less likely to fall victim to faddism or to develop niche scenes that were in direct opposition to the punk/hardcore impulse, and DC’s function as the nerve center of the Federal Government played a large role in shaping how many in the District elected to transform hardcore, which was quite often a very political genre, instead of abandon it. Dag Nasty were part of the initial wave of DC post-HC bands, and until the emergence of Fugazi, they were likely the most popular. Featuring Brian Baker (ex-of Minor Threat), Dag Nasty made a huge impression with the 1986 release of CAN I SAY, presenting a fresh sonic recipe--retain the heaviness, increase the melody and eschew rage and didacticism in favor of angst and introspection. I first heard CAN I SAY roughly a year after it hit the racks, and while it did play a big part in my personal growth away from standard punk and hardcore, I must confess it didn’t affect me the way their artier, wordier DC contemporaries Rites Of Spring did. The members of Dag Nasty were all veterans of other bands, and it’s obvious from listening to their debut that the shared goal was to play more accessibly and connect with a wider audience. In this case, that’s cool. By 1985, the standard hardcore scene had stagnated considerably. And at this point, their music retained much from Minor Threat circa OUT OF STEP and held flashes of influence from such worthy melodic trailblazers as Descendents and Hüsker Dü. However, there was an earlier, tougher period in Dag Nasty’s genealogy which featured powerhouse vocalist Shawn Brown (later of Swiz). The recordings of that lineup have been floating around for almost two decades, but I’d never made the effort to check ‘em out until now. My mistake. DAG WITH SHAWN, Dischord Records’ archival release of the Brown-era tapes shows how different the initial version was in both texture and velocity. The raw-throated sing-shout of Brown essentially necessitates that the band respond with something approximately as heavy, and in so doing the entire session falls much closer to the wilder, more abrasive end of the post-HC spectrum. The whole sweet mess is coated with the sturdy chug/throttle that became very common (and welcome) as the better hardcore bands learned how to stretch beyond the limitations of the form’s standard beats and riffs. This tightly wound release really hits a qualitative peak with the jackhammer delivery of the song “Can I Say”, which raises the bar on an already classic tune. To my ears, Brown’s brawny, vein bulging roar is preferable to subsequent vocalist Dave Smalley’s streamlined approach, though it must be stressed how that more well-mannered style fit his version of the band like a pair of stretchy bike shorts. To wit: CAN I SAY’s “What Now?” combines a tuneful, almost popish dynamic with earnest lyrical vulnerability, resulting in a sound that helped inspire legions of alienated teen punks to scribble endlessly into battered composition notebooks all across the land. I know, ‘cause I was one of ‘em. Due to these palpable differences DAG WITH SHAWN doesn’t serve as a replacement for CAN I SAY, but instead stands as its own entity, falling in with the bolder, more workmanlike DC bands such as Marginal Man, later-period Scream and Ignition. Listening loudly is like a passport back to a sweaty “3 bands for 3 bucks” gig in the cramped confines of the old 9:30 Club. If my memory of those days sounds like a good time I can assure you they definitely were, and by extension this record most certainly is.
The Stanley Brothers weren’t the originators of bluegrass, but they do stand as one of the earliest and finest exponents of the style, helping to expand the possibilities of this still quite popular genre in its formative period shortly after the Second World War, and anybody who wants a thorough picture of the movement away from old timey string band traditions toward the development of a more progressive and modern sound simply must contend with this pair. While it’s generally acknowledged that they really hit their stride with the 22 tracks recorded for the Columbia label starting right at the cusp of the 1950s, the material collected on EARLIEST RECORDINGS: THE COMPLETE RICH-R-TONE 78S (1947-1952) is still fascinating and in my estimation essential for numerous reasons. Foremost, it catches the Stanleys at a crucial moment where their style did more than just hint at the influence of their predecessors. I find it impossible to listen to this record’s opening cut “Little Maggie” and not hear the resonant style of Appalachian giant Clarence “Tom” Ashley, for just one instance. Also, it’s quite apparent that the expressive melancholy that forms a huge part of the stylistic makeup of bluegrass, a feel the form's progenitor Bill Monroe called the “high lonesome sound” (a term also used to describe the art of another old time master Roscoe Holcomb), was an inextricable part of the Brothers’ work from the very start. To elaborate, their vocal harmonies possessed a chilly gripping beauty that many later bluegrass players and groups sacrificed in favor of flurries of technical flash and modest slickness. The Stanley Brothers’ music at this point is emotionally direct and strikingly pure in form, though at this early date any purist notions are still a long ways away. They easily attain a natural ache and a well balanced instrumental vision while essentially responding to other’s advancements in this newfound roots style (Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrook” is covered here, much to Bill’s then disdain). And those brotherly harmonies fall into an estimable progression of sibling country acts that include the Delmores, the Louvins and the Everlys. One only need listen to “Death Is Only a Dream” to understand just how vital this pair was not only to bluegrass but to the intricate and often undervalued fabric of country music as a whole. Anybody with an interest in the weave of that tapestry needs this collection pure and simple. And please note that only the first ten tracks here truly qualify as the Stanley’s earliest recordings. The last four were actually done in the short interim between their Columbia and Mercury contracts. So this is a real gap-filler for budding musicologists as well as an indispensible slab of gorgeous rural science. Getting familiar with the earliest work of an artist or group can sometimes be just a completist gesture. And that’s alright. I’ve gestured in a completist manner many times, and am far the better for it. But completism is not the case here. Ralph and Carter Stanley were great from the get-go, and it’s wonderful to see their early sides collected and readily available.