Friday, March 23, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 3/23/12 - feedtime and The Magnetic Fields

It’s a harsh fact of the ongoing musical discourse that vastly important and terribly underappreciated bands are constantly in danger of slipping through the cracks of time. In the spirit of spreading the word and clarifying the historical record, Sub Pop has done the world a great service by collecting in box-set form the first four LPs from one of the truly singular acts of the ‘80s underground, Sydney Australia’s feedtime.
As a listener whose life was forever changed by the steady avalanche of small bands that sprung up in the post-hardcore 1980s, it can be a little bit of a drag to see the retrospective mainstream validation of this movement focus so heavily on the same handful of names. Nearly all of these entities either found wider success in the ‘90s (Sonic Youth, J Mascis, Butthole Surfers) or held some direct influence or involvement with the decade’s crossroads of Alternative and indie culture (Steve Albini, Beat Happening).
Any witness to the defiant march of the subterranean ’80s can attest to the landscape holding far more than just a dozen or so groundbreaking groups. In fact, so many records were available through a network of grassroots channels (mail-order, independently owned shops, at shows) that a dysfunctional industry existed, one that was largely undisturbed by the snouts of Big Label snoopers until the rumblings and eventual explosion of what’s sometimes called The Year Punk Broke tore the lid off of everything.
And this outbreak of small, organic bands and scenes was very much a global one; it’s a very US-centric notion to posit that the music which helped to shape Grunge and indie-rock originated, with one or two bones tossed to the rest of the planet, inside the borders of the Continental United States. For just one instance, the continent of Australia fostered a thriving rock underground that rivaled the output of any other region on the map, and one of their greatest exports was feedtime.
The music of feedtime can be described as a very heavy extension of post-punk minimalism, and it can be counted as one of the earliest examples of noise-rock, a sub-genre that didn’t really gain a toe-hold until the latter part of the decade. But tagging them as post-punk misses explicating how feedtime was such an astonishing example of primitive, pummeling invention, the trio being one of the first punk-informed outfits to grapple with the blues as a launching pad for formal extremity. What’s more, their barbed assault registered as fundamentally different to the bluesy absorption of The Gun Club’s Fire of Love, feeling much closer to the back-to-basics gestalt of hardcore.
feedtime released four full-length albums between 1985 and 1989, all on their home country’s Aberrant label.  Through distribution deals via Rough Trade and Holland’s Megadisc their music reached far beyond the shores of Australia and developed a small yet devoted following, particularly stateside in the Pacific Northwest and in its noise-rocking mid-section.
It’s those four LPs that Sub Pop have collected in what can be best termed as a long gestating labor of love. Their self-titled debut finds the rudiments of the band’s potent, no-frills attack firmly in place. Rick (guitar, vocals), Al (bass) and Tom (drums) first began playing together in 1979, so the album’s startlingly well-formed structural basis shouldn’t be surprising. As a recording entity feedtime was always a tight unit, though so heavy and unrefined that to the casual ear their assault could be perceived as a barrage of low-end murk.
But feedtime simply weren’t a band for casual ears. Instead, they were about the abandonment of finesse and polish in favor of a throttling simplicity located not only in the logistics of the power-trio but also in the less urbane, more primal end of their aforementioned blues fixation. feedtime’s cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “I Wonder What’s the Matter with Papa’s Little Angel Child” illustrates the link between the Delta and Down Under rather nicely.
And the music of McDowell provides even further illumination on the congruence between two seemingly disparate sensibilities. While the early country blues was acoustic by necessity, McDowell was a post-WWII discovery who had no problem plugging into an amplifier to boost the oomph of his already huge style, and cuing up his I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll LP alongside feedtime really emphasizes the common ground between the bluesman and the Aussie trio.
But if Fred McDowell didn’t play rock ‘n’ roll, feedtime most assuredly did. And if their debut displayed an unusual level of confidence in conception, its follow-up Shovel still managed to impart a startling level of progress. Rick’s blade-sharp slide guitar was even more potent, as was the way he alternated its cutting aura with waves of engine-like grind. Tom’s drumming was tangibly heavier in its shrewd simplicity, and Al’s bass was the crucial not-secret weapon; while surely a key factor in the music’s rhythmic propulsion, the reality is that Al approached the bass like a lead instrument, allowing the bottom-end to move with a fleet density. While never playing all that fast, feedtime was a unit of such single-minded cohesion their songs felt like a well-kept vintage car being pushed into fifth gear by an expert (and slightly crazy) driver.
If not their best record, 1988’s Cooper-S is certainly the boldest. An all covers affair, it featured songs originally from The Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Slade, Nancy Sinatra, Ramones, Stooges, Lee Hazelwood and even a poem by e. e. cummings (!), amongst others. What’s refreshing is how feedtime didn’t just steamroll over their sources; that would be far too predictable a maneuver. Instead, they simply choose to adapt them into their formidable sonic attack. With this said some songs are more recognizable than others; the point isn’t tribute but rather an expression of common ground. So it makes total sense considering feedtime’s non-purist blues bent that the Stones get tackled three times. Okay, maybe a little bit of tribute does slip in via home-country covers of The Easybeats’ “Sad, Lonely and Blue” and (the Aussie band) X’s anti-social anthem “I Don’t Wanna Go Out”. While Cooper-S is a fine LP that’s vital to understanding what made feedtime tick, it’s also not the best place for the uninitiated to start.
Suction however, might be. Arriving in 1989 and marking the end of their first phase, its mix courtesy of Butch Vig is a major component of what is probably feedtime’s friendliest record. So those unaccustomed to ‘80s u-ground noise-rock that are looking to dabble into feedtime’s fuel-injected waters might want to start here and perhaps work backward. In addition to the evolution of their blues influence, the band integrating acoustic moments that sit in agreeable contrast to their standard mode of operation, what’s maybe most impressive about Suction overall is how it shows with clarity that feedtime didn’t decline, they just chose to stop. That’s a nice balm for consumers curious over this group who are potentially weary of plunking down ducats for a box-set due to the format’s rep for including later and much lesser material.
While Suction is the last LP in this set, that’s by no means the end of feedtime’s story; the trio subsequently reconvened for 1996’s Billy, released through the Amphetamine Reptile. And while that record remains a particularly strong showing, its contents are sensibly not included here. Billy was an excellent release by the same smart unit, but it was frankly the product of another time.
Instead, The Aberrant Years generously fills out its CD and digital editions with hard to find singles and comp tracks from ’85-‘89. The result is a grand portrait of the massive movements of an outstanding band, and for anyone seeking a thorough understanding of the ‘80s underground rock scene, it’s absolutely essential.

On Love at the Bottom of the Sea The Magnetic Fields reengage with the synth-pop that made them one of the ‘90s most artistically fruitful acts. But something’s missing, or more accurately two things; the peaks of Stephin Merritt’s once exemplary songwriting and the music that made his tunes such a unique listening experience.
It was pretty much inevitable that 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Fields’ massive 3-volume set of thematic yet emotionally diverse pop gems, while providing an embarrassment of riches that more than capped-off their distinguished ‘90’s work, would also prove to be an impossible act to follow. In fact Merritt seemed to sense this very fact by delving into three albums that have come to be called the “no-synth trilogy”; the first two, 2004’s i and 2008’s Distortion, were generally well received efforts that largely succeeded in their aims of stylistic divergence. However 2010’s Realism, by no means a failure, seemed to locate a certain weariness in the group and provoked restlessness from longtime fans of the band desirous for them to get back to what they did best.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea is intended as that record. After a three album departure to Nonesuch it finds The Magnetic Fields returning to Merge, the label that issued their most highly regarded work, and it features the synth-pop instrumentation that proved so crucial to the group’s sticking out in a clamorous sea of ‘90s indie guitar bands. But ultimately this new record sounds less like The Magnetic Fields of old and more like an inferior version of a once near-unimpeachable act.
A nagging part of the problem lies in a gradual change in Merritt’s songwriting. One interesting indulgence found on 69 Love Songs was its occasional flare-ups of wordplay that might inspire a laugh, a shake of the head, or an eye roll at the premeditative nature of their lack of subtlety. This tactic generally worked exceptionally well, mainly because Merritt’s style has never been about sincerity. Instead, it revels in an old, pre-rock artificiality; it’s not about the purging of the soul but the exaltation of the song. The infrequently blunt, sometimes even corny lines found on 69 Love Songs found him closer to Cole Porter than ever.
But on Love at the Bottom of the Sea, these head-shakers and eye-rollers have codified into a strategy of near or outright groaners. This causes “Your Girlfriend’s Face” (for just one example) to plummet from a song of broken-relationship revenge into an unappealing parody of one (in the evenings I devised your death/being buried alive on crystal meth). For every song that successfully navigates this sensibility, like the pre-release single “Andrew in Drag”, there is one that doesn’t, such as the abstinence mocking “God Wants Us to Wait”. It used to be that Merritt’s lyrics felt instantly classic. Now they too often feel calculatedly cheesy.
And it’s not that every song Merritt wrote in the ‘90s was brilliant and every release an impeccable masterwork. His batting average was impressively high, but 1995’s Get Lost was a less significant album than its predecessor from the previous year, The Charm of the Highway Strip. But if Get Lost was minor, it was still totally consistent with Merritt’s disciplined excavation of early pop tradition and even included one of his finest ever songs, “All the Umbrellas in London”. And Strip could engage with the tricky allure of country music while never once getting within spitting distance of shallowness or parody.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea holds a number of very good songs (“Andrew in Drag”, “The Only Boy in Town”, “I Don’t Like Your Tone” “All She Cares About is Mariachi”) but I’m hesitant to call any of them great, at least against the standard Merritt once set for his work. And the less than good ones (“God Wants Us to Wait” “Your Girlfriend’s Face” “Goin’ Back to the Country”, “The Horrible Party”) make the album unpalatable as a start to finish listen. Realism shouldered a similar problem, but that felt like an aberration. For a record touted as The Magnetic Fields’ return to synth-pop form to register as so hit-and-miss, and with its highs so earthbound, is distressing.
But this LP actually doesn’t sound very much like their synth-pop of old. Frankly, it’s much too slick. One of the finest qualities of the group’s music up to and including Get Lost is how they elevated cheap tech into a clinical prettiness that didn’t really recall any prior synth-pop models. Additionally, their attention to detail was magnificent, allowing a compilation track like “Take Ecstasy with Me” to be as strong as anything in the first half of their discography.
While it’s true that many of 69 Love Songs’ more techno informed tracks did radiate with a slicker quality, they also very often featured an appealing sparseness (and again, top-flight songwriting) that’s simply nowhere to be found on Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Minus the vocals of Merritt, Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms it’s doubtful I’d recognize much of the music here as being The Magnetic Fields.
I want to be clear that I’m not penalizing the group for sounding different than they did in 1995. Bigger production and less inventive instrumentation wouldn’t be at all a problem if the songs were stronger. And regarding those songs, I’d welcome their change in direction if it was successful more often, but sadly that isn’t the case. And if I am unconsciously pining for a sound that’s over fifteen years old it’s in large part because Love at the Bottom of the Sea has been so heavily identified as a reengagement with the synth-pop that made them such a lauded band.
But The Magnetic Fields have delivered a record that amplifies a double meaning in “return to form”. Yes, in the strict sense they have reacquainted themselves with the formal aspects of synth-pop. But in terms of sheer quality, the band hasn’t returned to anything. Instead, they’ve made the least successful record in their long existence, a circumstance that finds them squarely in uncharted territory.