By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Against all odds, 2010 is shaping up to be a real good year for indie-rock albums. Only thing is, the most exciting ones seem to have been recorded 30 years ago.
Matter of fact, I have 10 such platters piled up here, all released in the past eight months, all but a handful of their tracks put to tape between 1977 and 1983, just when technology was making homemade self-releases feasible—as far as "indie" goes, this was the ground floor. All involve artists based in provincial middle-American 'burghs and 'burbs, away from capitals of entertainment and commerce, but only five got entries in 1985's The New Trouser Press Record Guide. Most selections have never before appeared in album form: They come from long-gone 45s, EPs, cassette compilations, live tapes lost in the backs of closets for decades, fuzzy mobile-rig-recorded demos. Yet almost without exception, they partake in an energy that puts pretty much any new 2010 indie to shame.
For one thing, most still sound like they're inventing something; they're operating in a habitat where "alternative" isn't yet a quarter-century-old marketing concept that's self-defeating by definition. They also represent a moment—a decade or more before grunge broke—when whatever-modern-music-was-called-then had neither been straitjacketed into slamdance nor ruled out rock-band power, momentum, groove, coherence, and structure as corny and déclassé.
That said, it's notable that a couple acts—two-man art-funksters the Method Actors and one-man art-popster Kevin Dunn, both identified with the boho college enclave and proto-indie hotbed of Athens, Georgia—had already abandoned the traditional rock-band format. But while Dunn's No Great Lost: Songs, 1979–1985 (Casa Nueva) features only one track by his mid-'70s Atlanta band the Fans, it still embraces rock 'n' roll enough to include insanely fuzztoned covers of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and "Louie Louie" amid all the herky-jerking Eno loopage. The bands that come off most comfortable in their relationship to pre-punk hard rock seem to be ones who were more or less formed by 1977, the year Never Mind the Bollocks came out: suburban Chicago class clowns Tutu and the Pirates; Louisville semi-metal eccentrics the Endtables; Erie, Pennsylvania's boys'-room smokers Pistol Whip; Akron micro-prog weirdos Tin Huey. Cleveland's even louder Easter Monkeys didn't officially initiate their heavy post-punk psych caterwaul until '81, but guitarist Jim Jones had been perfecting his downer riffs in the Electric Eels and Styrenes almost since the glam days.
The Ohio bands, for what it's worth, had their own boho college enclave and proto-indie hotbed in post-massacre Kent—particularly nutjob virtuosos and longtime one-album wonders Tin Huey, whose '78-'79-recorded Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes includes a live Stooges cover for Iggy's birthday, yet revels in mixed-and-matched time changes, sax blats, and rave-ups owing more to bebop and the Yardbirds (and seemingly Zappa, even if they deny it) than to punk per sé. It was compiled by the remarkably reliable little Chicago label Smog Veil, which also put out Easter Monkeys' menacing, frequently massive, and (especially when singing about underwear and crucifixion) surprisingly tuneful Splendor of Sorrow, along with Ohio-bordering Pistol Whip's goofball parking-lot piledriver Terminal. For the latter, think pre-punk punks the Dolls, Stranglers, Alice Cooper, Brownsville Station, and especially the Dictators; realize that they have songs called "Six More Inches," "Big Boy," and "Cock Sure," and gauge their usefulness in your life accordingly.
I kinda love them, myself. Same goes for the possibly even more Dictators- (and Zappa-, and Mad-) damaged Tutu and the Pirates, cross-dressing cartoons who crack wise about Son of Sam, Nazis, necrobestiality, zits, janitors, disco, and how Darlene won't give them head on the incidentally hook-laden Sub-Urban Insult Rock for the Anti/Lectual 1977–1979. Legend says Tutu's crew introduced punk to Chicago, thus oddly paving the way for their current Factory 25 archive-labelmates Da–Exclamation Point (née Da!), whose lunging repertoire on (Un)Released Recordings 1980–81 is nonetheless considerably less asinine and more angst-ridden, coming as it does from an un-fratty co-ed lineup whose lead yelper, Lorna Donley, sometimes approaches Polly Harvey/Courtney Love territory a decade early.
Donley also, when loosening up a little in Da's kerosene-pyromaniac (see: Big Black) "The Killer" at least, sounds quite a bit like Vanessa Briscoe Hay from Athens' Pylon, whose own 1983 sophomore album was recently revived in expanded form as Chomp More (DFA). Pylon, as all hipster schoolchildren know by now, were all about the rhythm: spare clanking drumbeats, repeated guitar figures, and loud staccato chants that somehow anticipate techno and industrial while referencing funk, surf, and railroad blues. Their indelible 1979 debut single "Cool"/"Dub" was co-produced by the aforementioned Kevin Dunn, who also oversaw the B-52s' "Rock Lobster," and thus helped invent the new-wave substyle once known for a couple months as "dance-oriented rock." In that category would also land aforementioned duo the Method Actors, whose fractured '80-'81 drum/guitar/vocal workouts on This Is Still It (Acute) come off more severe and mannered than Pylon, but manage to click into volcanic reggae-reverberated harmolodics when allotted sufficient space.
Oddly, it was a less syncopative act from that same Athens scene—R.E.M., featuring Method Actors CD liner-noter Peter Buck—whose murmuring jangle really set indie rock on its ultimate path toward introversion. But it didn't have to turn out that way. In turn-of-the-'80s Kentucky, you might have a band like the Endtables, whose superb self-titled collection on Drag City has their gargantuan transvestite frontman Steve Rigot bleating passionately about circumcision, Halloween, and bathtub razor-blade suicides against heroic guitar foil Alex Durig trying to get his Nugent on. Or, in St. Louis, there'd be a band like Raymilland, whose Recordings '79-'81 (BDR) zip-zaps their science-experiment synth noise and dub-housed axe drones in a manner seemingly trucked down the interstate from the dilapidated North Ohio flats of Pere Ubu and the Bizarros. Pretty impressive that all this stuff was happening around the same time, with barely anybody noticing. Except then, within a few years . . . pfft. Whatever you call it, it was on its way out.