I first encountered British postpunks Essential Logic when I was a pre-adolescent, graduating to new wave from Dr. Demento—the only place to hear “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” and Bix Beiderbecke in early ’80s SoCal. Beat Rhythm News, the band’s 1979 LP, stayed on rec-room rotation indefinitely, while Rough Trade labelmates Swell Maps’ A Trip to Marineville went back to the record store within weeks. “Popcorn Boy” hooked me hardest, with guitar that didn’t matter, bass that did, Rich Tea’s martial snare, and words that were already nonsense stretched to breaking by Lora Logic’s rubberized mask of a voice. “Eyelined wallpaper, your pressurized frame/Your epileptone game of lights sights and fads.” Playful unto absurdity, this was art music a “Fish Heads” fan could handle.
Revisited now, on the two-disc retrospective Fanfare in the Garden, the album doesn’t sound like a denial of meaning but an interrogation, its wordplay (“Disarmament, I give my arm to you”) closer to Gertrude Stein’s than to Edward Lear’s. Lora’s “logic” wasn’t “order,” but “sense,” as in not nonsense after all. X-Ray Spex, who booted the singer-saxophonist out by 1978, urgently imagined a life organized around something other than shopping; as bandleader, Lora took even less for granted. “Why can’t they eat in their sleeping houses/ And sleep in their eating bags?” asks “Shabby Abbott,” rather than the reverse?
Such materialist concerns weren’t uncommon at the time (see Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It”), but their expression via Essential Logic’s woozy instability was the band’s own, with precedents outside the expected punk/DIY lineage. The pre-album single “Aerosol Burns” dogpiles on its central riff with Beefhartian heft, while Lora’s technical experiments with voice and horn link her to “non-idiomatic” Brit improv heavies Phil Minton and Evan Parker, respectively. In hindsight, it’s obvious how closely the LP’s what’s-a-chorus? intricacies slept to the prog-rock enemy, even if its unadorned production didn’t.
Nominally funkier later singles (“Moontown,” “Music Is a Better Noise”) and collaborations with Red Crayola (here represented by “Born in Flames”) have their partisans, but the world-remaking bottomlessness of Beat Rhythm News proved unrepeatable. A 1982 solo album, backed by gray-scale droners This Heat, yielded just two memorable cuts—”Wonderful Offer,” a gleaming ingot of New Pop, and “Martian Man,” a squealing, metaphysically troubled breakup song: “You swore to me eternally that you were Truth, the Absolute.” Soon after, Lora Logic found her own Truth, her Absolute, as a follower of Krishna, which made her ensuing 15-year silence less surprising than her re-emergence with two Web-only EPs in the late ’90s. The back half of Fanfare in the Garden includes both, as well as five unreleased tracks spanning the years between.
The thematic restrictions of this latter-day work are between the singer and her faith. What’s more disappointing is her newly constrained vocal approach. Sticking to a single register and giving vowels their normal values on 1983’s “Soul” (“The logic of your soul is hidden from you”) or the 1997 EP’s piano-backed “Marika,” she’s less Lora than Isobel or Aggi—some slightly dowdy indie-popper, lost in demo-quality programmed backing. A 1998 full-band session is better, with squared-off rhythms reflecting Blondie guitarist Gary Valentine’s bleached powerpop roots. The two winners are the supple, semi-ska “Not Me” and “No More Fiction,” which re-purposes “Martian Man” as a sock-hop stroll. More rueful than radical, it’s the only song from Disc Two I’m playing as obsessively as Disc One. It would have sounded great in the rec room.