Gaussian Curve: Clouds

One of last year’s most warmly received archival discoveries was Talk to the Sea, a collection of unreleased recordings by the Italian musician Gigi Masin. His debut album, Wind, self-released in 1986, is an understated gem that falls somewhere between Balearic ambient music and secular new age, with echoes of Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, and Arthur Russell‘s World of Echo. It’s not terribly well known, but those who have heard it tend to be passionate about it. A former radio DJ, Masin has done other things over the years, including a 1989 split LP with This Heat’s Charles Hayward, on Sub Rosa, and, in the ’00s, a handful of recordings for small Italian labels. But he’s remained largely under the radar. I had never heard of Masin until I encountered Talk to the Sea, released by the fledgling Amsterdam label Music From Memory, but its impact was immediate—if “impact” is quite the right word for a sound so warmly, woozily amniotic, a sound entirely without hard surfaces or sharp edges.

Masin returns here as one-third of Gaussian Curve, a multi-generational ensemble that also includes the Scottish musician Jonny Nash, a founder of the ESP Institute label and member of the synth-besotted softronica act Land of Light, and Amsterdam’s Marco Sterk, better known for his woozy house productions under the Young Marco alias. Nash and Sterk first met Masin in the fall of 2013, and they wound up briefly jamming together in the house of a friend. The three musicians reconvened in Amsterdam in early 2014, and they ended up completing eight tracks in a single weekend. Clouds is the result of those sessions, and it’s every bit as dreamlike as the musicians make the weekend sound. “It was almost like we weren’t involved,” Nash told Juno Plus. “It just slipped out.”

The eight songs here, all instrumentals, feel less like standalone pieces than variations on a common theme. They share similar instrumentation, and they’re all uniformly limpid and languid. Masin sets the tone, and the pace, with slow-moving chords on acoustic piano or Rhodes keyboard, while Nash and Sterk flesh out the songs with gently meandering electric guitar, wispy synthesizer pads, and, occasionally, trumpet and melodica. Given the trumpet, the music often brings to mind Jon Hassell’s Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. A few songs feature rudimentary drum-machine programming, mostly just tuned toms and woodblocks, that might be mistaken for dripping faucets. To call it “atmospheric” would be an extreme understatement. (On the closing “Red Light”, they hold a microphone out the studio window and record the voices and footfalls of the alley outside.) It probably bears as much in common with watercolor as it does most electronic music.

While the music unfolds with about as much drama as a smoke ring wafting towards the ceiling—about as much consequence, too—these are masterfully crafted mood pieces. In the opening “Talk to the Church”, Masin mimics the chimes of a bell tower that loomed over the trio’s studio, his chords gently bouncing and swaying, enlivened by millisecond-long syncopations and subtle shifts in volume. And despite the limited palette and the uniform tempos, they wisely change keys for virtually every song. So while the view remains the same, the light shifts, ever so subtly. True to the title, the experience of this short album, just 38 minutes long, feels a little like a time-lapse film of clouds crossing the sky—of day turning to night, and back again. With the closing “Red Light”, the music returns to its original key, and it feels like things have come full circle. The logical response—my response, anyway—is to resume the cycle, and launch into the daybreak bells of “Talk to the Church” all over again.

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Brian Eno: Nerve Net/The Shutov Assembly/Neroli/The Drop

Brian Eno had a very busy decade in the 1990s. He worked on U2’s Achtung Baby and Zooropa, James’ Laid, David Bowie’s Outside, and innumerable other records by musicians from around the world. He scored Neil Gaiman’s TV series Neverwhere. He wrote the fascinating diary published as A Year with Swollen Appendices. He published the fourth edition of his brilliant card deck of “worthwhile dilemmas,” Oblique Strategies. And, of course, he recorded his greatest hit, one of the most-played compositions of all time: the Windows 95 startup tone.

Somewhere in there, he also released the four solo albums that have now been reissued in expanded editions, with an extra CD appended to each. Well, four and a half: in 1991, My Squelchy Life, his first song-based solo album since 1978’s Before and After Science, made it as far as advance promotional cassettes. Then, as he told Audio magazine a few years later, he found out that the album was being pushed back from September to February, and decided to withdraw it and replace it with a newer recording that was more on “the cutting edge… my feeling is that things don’t come with intrinsic and timeless value. Where you place them in time, the context they fall in, is what charges them.”

The album that replaced My Squelchy Life in the context of 1992 was Nerve Net, which is more obviously a product of its time than any other Eno record. It’s roughly half-vocal, half-instrumental, and half-baked. The vocals are generally not Eno’s, and mostly spoken; the instrumental tone is cold and brittle (although a couple of Robert Fripp guitar solos briefly light a fire on its surface); the synthesizer tones are the presets of their moment. “Ali Click” even interpolates the “Ashley’s Roachclip” break made famous by Milli Vanilli, as well as some iffy rapping. Also iffy: “What Actually Happened?”, a Vocoder-distorted discussion of a rape, paired with a forceful beat. The album’s home stretch features two consecutive mixes of the not-up-to-much instrumental “Web”, totaling over 15 tedious minutes. 

The bonus disc on the reissue, though, is its real draw: My Squelchy Life, Eno’s most enjoyable solo album of the ’90s by a wide margin. It’s only “retrospective” (as he dismissed it) in the sense that it plays to some of the strengths he’d demonstrated earlier in his career, like songwriting and singing. (A couple of its songs were re-edited for Nerve Net, and most of the rest were parceled out on one release or another over the next few years; this is the first time it’s all officially appeared in one place.) Its opening tracks, the dissonant stomp “I Fall Up” (“I’m sucking the juice from the generator! More volts!!“) and the slow churn “The Harness”, are the proclamations of the King of the Weirdos come home to rule again, and for every failed experiment like “Tutti Forgetti” there’s a delightful throwaway like “Stiff”.

The 10 rhythmless, tuneless pieces that make up The Shutov Assembly, also released in 1992 but recorded between 1985 and 1990, are named after places where Eno had done image-and-sound installations—although presenting them outside those contexts also depleted whatever charge they might have had. Eno later described them as sketches for orchestral works: electronically generated tones that acoustic instruments were meant to somehow replicate. They are whooshy, and evaporate as soon as they’re over. The bonus disc is seven more pieces from the same era, in the same amorphous vein, although a few of them have some sort of beat; “Storm” even incorporates what sounds like another Fripp guitar solo.

Eno likes to talk about his interest in perfume, and a scent provided the title of the hour-long, single-track 1993 album Neroli (although he’d already released a four-minute edit of the same piece as “Constant Dreams” on the 1989 album Textures). At the time, it might have been a riposte to the low-key dance tracks that were being fobbed off as “ambient”: as the person who’d more or less invented ambient music, Eno knew well that the point of ambience is that it’s just barely perceptible. But the softly echoing pings and plinks of “Neroli” are instantly overfamiliar; without the famous name on the cover, no one would have given it a second thought. The new reissue pairs it with a previously unreleased hour-long drone piece from 1992, “New Space Music”, which mostly suggests that Eno had figured out how to hold down keys for a really long time.

1997’s The Drop is a set of mostly brief instrumentals—and one very long one, “Iced World”—in a style Eno referred to as “Unwelcome Jazz” (because, he explained, “most of the people I played them to don’t really like them”). They’re semi-abstract or “generative” electronic pieces, made with instrumental sounds that already have cultural associations, like piano, early-hip-hop drum machines, and, on “Dear World,” samples of Eno’s own voice. It’s not uninteresting to hear once. The extra disc here is a set of The Drop’s outtakes and alternate versions, originally sold as a limited edition at a Tokyo exhibition of Eno’s “77 Million Paintings”.

Eno subsequently recorded a string of limited-edition soundtracks to installation pieces, but his next solo album to see wide release would be 2005’s Another Day on Earth. It included the same version of the lovely, slowly pulsing “Under” that had originally been intended to appear on My Squelchy Life—a song whose “retrospective” character had apparently worn off in the intervening 14 years.

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Fugazi: First Demo

It’s always been kind of hilarious that Ian MacKaye’s first recorded declaration as Fugazi’s frontman was “I am a patient boy.” In both a literal and figurative sense, MacKaye’s early career was defined by restlessness, whether setting land-speed records for early ’80s hardcore in Minor Threat or swiftly shifting gears into the anthemic proto-emo of Embrace. But from the first notes of Joe Lally’s circular bass riff, “Waiting Room”—the opening song on 1988’s debut self-titled EP—instantly asserted Fugazi as something markedly different than their D.C.-hardcore pedigree suggested: cooler, funkier, and, judging by the rhythmic pause slyly introduced at the 23-second mark, even a little frisky.

Actually, scratch that—as it turns out, MacKaye’s first recorded declaration as Fugazi’s frontman was “Oh…. whoops.” As heard on this reissue of the band’s first recording session in January ’88 (back when Arlington, Virginia’s fabled Inner Ear Studio could still be found in producer Don Zientara’s suburban basement), the aforementioned pause in “Waiting Room” not only trips up the song’s rhythm, but its lead vocalist as well. Still growing accustomed to that structural hiccup, MacKaye starts singing his first lyric before quickly realizing he came in too early, the self-described patient boy ironically thwarted by his own impatience. But the band played on and the tape kept rolling, and, despite the audible flubs and some obviously ad-libbed lyrics, Fugazi would informally distribute cassette copies of the 11-track session at their early shows, because, well, that’s what fledgling groups did with their first recordings before Bandcamp existed. And in lieu of the internet, you had a small but growing tape-trading cult of Fugazi fanatics who wore out their hi-speed-dubbing decks to spread the word.

But despite Fugazi’s seeming eagerness to share these off-the-cuff efforts, a listen to First Demo today reveals the band’s greatest virtue in their early years was indeed their patience. It’s a quality apparent not just in the performances themselves (which see the band tempering hardcore’s incendiary energy through dub’s woozy influence, rap repartee, and Zeppelin-schooled groove), but in how long it took for most of these songs to officially surface. Only three of the tracks here would be rerecorded for Fugazi’s first two EPs, four would eventually turn up in revised form on 1990’s full-length Repeater or its 3 Songs supplement, while others remained buried until as late as 2002, if not scrapped altogether. But what changed in the interim wasn’t so much the sound or shape of the songs, but the very intra-band dynamic that would go onto define Fugazi’s essence.

At the time of First Demo’s recording, Guy Picciotto was still trying to elbow his way into a band that MacKaye, Lally, and drummer Brendan Canty originally envisioned as a power trio. Yet to assert himself as MacKaye’s feisty, Flavor Flav-esque foil, Picciotto’s second-vocalist duties initially amounted to punctuating MacKaye’s lines with extra emphasis rather than provide a counterpoint. You can immediately sense Picciotto’s tentative position on “Waiting Room”, where he offers up his now-famous “come on and get up” post-chorus retort as a half-muttered afterthought rather than the brash call to arms we know today. And true to its title, Picciotto’s lone lead-vocal on “Break-In” feels very much like an intrusion, a shot of pure punk insolence that serves as a check on Fugazi’s rapidly expanding musical scope.

You can see why certain First Demo tracks didn’t make the cut on the band’s early proper releases, considering Picciotto would soon be bringing corkers like “Give Me the Cure” and “Glue Man” to the table. The embryonic take on “Furniture” was presumably shelved due to its rhythmic similarity to “Waiting Room”, and it practically sounds like a preemptive dub remix of the single version that surfaced in 2001; the compilation-bound rarity “The Word” gets even woolier, its garage-blasted charge dissolving into a distended coda likely deemed too ponderous for release even by Fugazi’s loosening standards. Meanwhile, “In Defense of Humans” and “Turn Off Your Guns” (the one song here never released before in any form) sound like dry runs for the sort of accelerated, in-the-pocket rave-up Fugazi would perfect several years later with Red Medicine’s “Bed For the Scraping”.

But if Fugazi was only just starting to exploit the call-and-response frisson that would ultimately spawn classics like “Suggestion” and “Margin Walker”, First Demo nonetheless amplifies a quality so often overshadowed by the band’s ideological concerns: Fugazi are fun, and from day one, they’ve wielded an affirming, bounding, adrenalizing noise to which the only logical physical response is hurtling yourself through a basketball hoop. And if songs like “And the Same”, “Badmouth”, “Song #1”, and “Merchandise” would appear in superior, tightened-up form on future releases, the slackened but still-potent versions here capture a band of hardcore veterans not so much stepping out of their comfort zone as finally locking into it. For long-time fans, First Demo makes something of a sport out of noting the minor differences between the early and official takes, like the breakdown on “Merchandise” where MacKaye repeats a line—”a dollar earned/ a dollar spent”—later nixed, presumably for being a bit too on-the-nose. But rather than diminish First Demo’s worth, such quirks ultimately justify its enduring value—these are rare, illuminating displays of imperfection from a band that, for the subsequent 15 years, made no false moves.

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Ty Segall: $INGLE$ 2

Ty Segall‘s 2011 singles compilation collected material he recorded and released between 2007 and 2010—25 loose ends from his “scrappy upstart” beginnings. His songs weren’t especially complex, but they hit their marks and made an impact. His crazed performances were undeniable. Sure, the recording quality was pretty crummy, but you could say the same of the Oblivians‘ and Reatards‘ early records (and Segall’s demos stand up alongside Soul Food and Teenage Hate). It was easy to root for him on those early outings—the fresh-faced punk screamer unleashing his inner demon and making songs promising enough to make you wonder where he’d go next.

His trajectory from there—following Melted in 2010—isn’t as easily summarized. After signing to Drag City, he generally moved in a singer/songwriter direction, but still kept releasing one-off rippers on labels like Castle Face, Goner, and Permanent. And now, his prodigious output is what he’s best known for: Segall has released a lot of music, heaps of stuff, to the point where it’s hard to keep track of it all, and he’s refused to conform to a single style or aesthetic. Sometimes, he’ll sing in a detached croon (“Fine”) and trigger full-on folk nostalgia with his acoustic rambles (“Gold on the Shore”, “The West”). Elsewhere, he transforms into Mr. Hyde for blasts of vicious, blistering rock’n’roll (Slaughterhouse). So when presented with a compilation of singles from his past four years, the first question is which version of Segall will get top billing: the lizard-brained Kiss/Black Sabbath apostle or the sentimental balladeer.

Thankfully, $INGLE$ 2‘s 12 songs avoid pigeonholing. Segall brings the fuzz and fury, but the aggression is cut with tracks like “Falling Hair” and “Children of Paul”, the plaintive Goodbye Bread era B-sides. If his previous singles compilation showed an artist asserting his garage punk dominance, this is the teenaged wrecker all grown up and ready to prove that he’s capable of much more.

For a collection of odds and ends, $INGLE$ 2 works remarkably well as an album. To my ear, it’s sequenced better than Twins or Manipulator, which makes some sense: the tracks are presented in chronological order, which makes for a natural narrative, each of his short-lived modes transitioning into his next. It also helps that there’s no filler to speak of—any A-sides already found on Drag City albums have been omitted in favor of B-sides and rarities. The only track that previously appeared on an album is “Hand Glams”, but the single version is another beast entirely, and, with the addition of vocal harmonies and a psychedelic warble, a far more interesting one at that.

It’s almost hard to believe that Segall’s scraps are this strong—take “For Those Who Weep”, a Twins era B-side that ranks as one of the best songs he’s written. It was a sign of things to come from Sleeper—warm acoustic material that sounds classic, the sort of thing you could have seen the Byrds covering. On the other end of the spectrum, Segall delivers “Fucked Up Motherfucker”, which, with its vicious churn and Steve Mackay-style sax, deserves a place in the spotlight instead of getting lost in the shuffle as one-twelfth of Castle Face’s Group Flex II book. Segall even breaks the trend of covers that feel like hollow throwaways. (The low point of Slaughterhouse was the Segall Band’s version of Captain Beefheart’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”.) His ramped up version of the Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Femme Fatale” excels in this comp’s context, as does his stomping rendition of the Groundhogs’ “Cherry Red”. The album ends on a high note with “Pettin the Dog”, a predictably vicious GG Allin cover (made G-rated for WFMU, with a more radio-friendly title).

Segall’s most recent album, Manipulator, was at times a frustrating listen. It was quite good on a song for song basis, but it often felt safe, and Segall’s mix of thrilling and somber was muddied. All of which explains why this compilation is so welcome. In addition to rounding up odds and ends, it’s an important LP in its own right. Don’t be fooled by how tacky the two dollar signs look in that album title: $INGLE$ 2 is the best Ty Segall album that got released in 2014.

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Mineral: The Power of Failing/EndSerenading

Mineral always felt private somehow. The Austin-via-Houston group wasn’t together all that long—they released two full-lengths and some singles, and by the time of that second album, they’d already broken up. Their short run may have contributed to a feeling of anonymity. To me, they were different from relative peers like Promise Ring or Lifetime, groups that seemed communal; Mineral weren’t a guilty pleasure, more like a prized secret. They’ve been described as a Sunny Day Real Estate rip-off, but that never seemed quite right to me—there was more lo-fi jangle and hiss to Mineral’s songs, and the production wasn’t as big. In a way, Mineral were more aligned to the darker pop of mid-1990s indie-rock groups like fellow Texans Bedhead, and they didn’t strike me as quite so “hardcore.” The connection with SDRE that did exist, though, were the angsty, acrobatic vocals of Chris Simpson, which were in the same vein as Jeremy Enigk’s, but rougher. And Simpson’s songs sounded so personal that they could only be his own.

Take, for instance, “MD”, the B-side to 1996’s “February” 7″, included on this new retrospective, 1994-1998 – The Complete Collection. On it, Simpson is about to visit his older brother (“It’s good to know we haven’t outgrown the love we shared as children”), and meet the woman that brother plans to marry. He talks about the secret language they shared at a young age, when they dressed up as Batman and Robin for Halloween (“Everybody laughed at us and said we had it wrong ’cause you were the taller one”), and ends the track with all the force he can muster: “She’s beautiful/ And I know that you’ll be happy/ So take this as my blessing/ Wrapped up with all the love that I can send/ ‘Cause you are my brother/ My friend/ And my superior/ Till the end.” On paper it reads like a note you’d send to a sibling; in song, it’s towering.

The emotions here are emo, no doubt. This is the kind of music where people yell “I stand on a building and throw up my arms to the sky/ I swallow my pride” and “This is the last song that I should ever sing/ Just one more time and I’ll shut my mouth forever” amid huge crashing guitars. Simpson sings about coming of age, feeling unloved and embarrassed (“I bring it on myself/ I know I bring it on myself”), and also the innocense of youth, being in love, loving your family, and what those connections and relationships mean. There are stabs at ’90s DIY politics, and he articulates being human and lost in great detail: “When I’m finally naked and standing in the sunlight/ I’ll look back at all of this selfishness and foolish pride/ And laugh at myself.” The melodrama, in general, is great, and the music around it rises to the occasion. The songs are intense, catchy, over-loaded with feedback and beauty, and meant to be yelled.

Though they didn’t release much, their two proper albums are markedly different. The sound of 1998’s EndSerenading was softer, and more glistening than 1997’s Power of Failing. It hinted at what Simpson would do with bassist Jeremy Gomez in their next band, the Gloria Record, and perhaps, in retrospect, suggests why the group went in two different directions: guitarist Scott McCarver and drummer Gabriel Wiley formed Imbroco then went on to found other projects separately. EndSerenading album was a pop, and not a lo-fi or punk gesture, and it’s just not as compelling as Failing. It has plenty of good moments, but it can also feel overthought and staid. Part of what makes The Power of Failing a classic is that its raw feel and execution matches its emotions.

Mineral formed in 1994, and released some singles and toured like crazy, so Failing felt like a culmination. Conversely, EndSerenading, which they recorded with producer Mark Trombino (Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World), felt, at times, like a lukewarm new beginning. They were supposed to do a third album for Interscope, but, of course, it never happened. Which, honestly, is probably for the best. There’s momentum on Failing that was already getting hemmed in on End, not to mention the addition of labored song titles like “LoveLetterTypewriter”, “TheLastWordIsRejoice”, and “&Serenading”. It’s easy to imagine them becoming even shinier and more staid on a major label debut.

Not to say End is a failure. Title aside, “LoveLetterTypewriter” is an excellent, moving opening track, and one of their best. Simpson sings the words patiently, and with more refinement than in the past (and, honestly, more like Enigk): “Summer unfolded like a tapestry/ And you were there as you have always been/ There glowing where the sky meets with the trees/ Air softly crowing, singing fears to sleep/ Will you ever know how much I love you for that?” It’s a constant build that crashes into the next track, “Palisade”, a song that serves as climax and release before moving into another direction. It’s an exciting one-two: these pieces pick up where Failing left off; the formula is updated, but not abandoned. The same goes for the group-singing of the next song, “Gjs”. But then, they take it down a few notches, often ending up too mid-tempo and over-long. The music remains pretty, and even knottier, but feels less life-affirming.

For instance, the spacious, ultimately clamoring “&Serenading” would be a good closer (“When I was a boy I saw things/ That no one else could see/ So why am I so blind at 22?”), but instead of the gorgeously repeated finale (“the sound of the driving snow that drives me home to you”), it’s the downtempo, shimmering acoustics and humming vocals of the pretty-but-slight “TheLastWordIsRejoice” that serve as our exit. Like the forced titling, it’s inoffensive, but feels unnecessary, as do other grown-up touches on End. That line from “&Serenading” quoted above reminds you just how young these guys were, though, and why they might feel the need to ratchet it up on their sophomore record, considering the attention given to the first.

Not that it mattered, of course. They ended and then, as bands do now, they reunited; this remastered two-disc compilation is a good way to hear it all in one sitting (the reissues are also available, without the bonus tracks, on vinyl). None of the alternate take bonus tracks here are especially riveting, and the covers of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” are mostly forgettable (the latter’s actually pretty bad), but it’s great to have the relative lo-fi “Rubber Legs”, from the 1997 (Don’t Forget To) Breathe compilation, the punked-up “Sadder Star”, which appears on the 1997 First Crush compilation, and, most importantly, the 1996 “February” b/w “M.D.” single, which includes a couple of their best songs.

When I listened to the Power of Failing in real time back then, it was often on a cassette that I’d dubbed from the vinyl, for when I was traveling. Because of that, I always thought “February” and “M.D.” were part of the proper record, and was surprised to realize they weren’t. That’s just one example of how music becomes personal, and shifts according to your own relationship with it. It’s something you’re faced with when the music of your youth keeps resurfacing, and it can be weird, but also somehow touching. For instance, it’s been good going back to these records so many years later, and realizing I find myself moved more by the songs about family than the ones about wondering on roofs alone. 

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