One of the things I like most about the 33 1/3 series is that besides each book focusing on an individual album, the writers are given almost no guiding rules on how they choose to explore that album. You might pick up a volume that talks about the making of an album, or one based on the author’s own personal experiences listening to an album at different points in their life or you might even get one where the author writes a novel based on an album. Ethan Hayden’s book is a study of Sigur Ros’ 2002 album ( ), largely concerned with the album’s use (or non-use) of language. If you’re unfamiliar with ( ), well you already see how the title has no apparent meaning. Add to that no song titles (instead they’re referred to as “Untitled 1″, “Untitled 2″, and so on) and lyrics that are a made up set of nonsensical sounds referred to as Hopelandic, and you’ve got an album where words have no meaning and vocal sounds are reduced down to gobbledygook, with just 30 syllables used in 72 minutes of music (this sentence uses more). Yet, despite these challenges, the album is entirely engaging on an emotional level and rich with meaning. Hayden details how Sigur Ros accomplishes this feat, and also goes on a long, and sometimes long-winded, exploration of historical antecedents for untranslatable language in the world of art and literature. While Sigur Ros fans who are not also students of linguistics would probably prefer a book that concentrated more on the music and less on things like trochaic rhythm, xenogloss and echolalia, there’s no denying that Hayden does make his points successfully and reading this book did give me a new level of appreciation for an album I already loved.
Before I talk about this record, I need to say a few things about my preference in musical formats. Until someone comes up with a format that combines the sound of vinyl, the predictability of CDs, and the portability of digital, I’m a staunch CD guy. I know everyone says vinyl sounds the best, and maybe it does, but I’ve got too much time and money invested into CDs to turn back now. Plus with vinyl there’s still issues with dust and scratches affecting the sound over time. I know for sure I definitely don’t like digital as a format. Yes, I like the portability, but there’s such a big difference in music imported from CDs vs. downloaded MP3s – that difference being that the downloaded MP3s sound like crap to me. Most people can’t tell the difference, but I can, and it always bothers me whenever I’m forced to listen to downloaded MP3s.
I bring this up because To Him Who Wills The Way is only available on vinyl and digital formats – no CD. It’s not the first release to go that route, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it rankles each time. I digress…. now onto the music.
Regardless of the format, this is a strong record for the Chicago foursome. Perhaps they don’t veer far from the template of hard-hitting post-punk they debuted with a decade ago (and it’s hard to believe I’ve been reviewing their music for that long), but they do find ways to add some new twists and turns into their sound. Opening track “Impending Doom” does that extremely well, starting with a synthy chorus that sounds like it was ripped straight from a Werner Herzog film, then blossoming into something dark and foreboding that reminds me of Black Sabbath (always a good thing) with Jocelyn Summers’ vocals filtered through what I think is an echoplex, creating an effect that instantly reminds me of old Jane’s Addiction records. This is also a good thing. Elsewhere, “Eyesore” is a textbook example of the Walking Bicycles aggressive-meets-atmospheric sound, and could have been on any of their releases from the past decade. That said, those stabbing shards of guitar on the chorus certainly make it hard to forget. “War Paint” is another standout track, with tight rhythms from Jason Leather and Deric Criss setting the stage for another gloomy and claustrophobic number, with lyrics perhaps referencing guitarist/Highwheel Records label head Julius Moriarty’s recent three year jail stint for pot possession (a ridiculous sentence in my opinion). To Him That Wills The Way may end quickly with ten songs clocking in at 29 minutes, but it doesn’t waste a second of that time and I find myself returning to it regularly. Now about that CD release…
The United States of America released this, their only album, in March of 1968. The Los Angeles five-some were an interesting assemblage of influences gleaned from the psychedelic rock underground, with an added art rock element derived from their use of avant-garde electronics and edgy leftist politics (there is a song called “Love Song For The Dead Che”). As a rock band they were pretty clumsy and typical of the era’s average West Coast ballroom-psychedelic act. This side of the band features heavily on “Hard Coming Love” and the embarrassingly bad “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar”. It’s really the band’s forward-thinking use of electronics that gave them an element of excitement, and made them unique. It’s what made them a hit with critics. It’s what made Nico (reportedly) want to join them after being booted from The Velvet Underground. It’s why we still remember this album over 4.5 decades on. After all, how many other bands in 1968 had a member who played ring modulator and electric violin, but didn’t have guitarist? While they didn’t go as far out with their use of electronics as The Silver Apples, they did get some really adventurous sounds out of their equipment, which, when paired with Dorothy Moskowitz’s vocals, gave tracks like “The American Metaphysical Circus”, “Cloud Song” and the LSD anthem “Coming Down” an other-worldy feeling that bands like Stereolab, Broadcast and Portishead picked up on decades later. This reissue doubles the original album’s ten songs with out-takes and alternate versions of album tracks – though they are the same ones featured on Sundazed’s 2004 reissue and in the same running order, no less. Esoteric’s reissue has been newly remastered and features new liner notes from rock scribe Sid Smith, so there is a reasonable case to be made for buying it again.
John Cale is one of the most under-rated people in rock history, having almost single-handedly laid the musical and attitudinal groundwork for what would later come to be known as alternative rock. In addition to giving the first two Velvet Underground albums their groundbreaking avant-garde edge, Cale also produced masterworks by The Stooges, Patti Smith and Modern Lovers, performed on great albums by Nick Drake and Brian Eno, and made his own brilliant solo album, Paris 1919. Church of Anthrax, his collaboration with minimalist composer Terry Riley, featured recordings made as far back as May 1969, making it the first album Cale recorded after leaving The Velvet Underground. However, it sat on a shelf for almost two years due a lengthy mixing process that caused Riley to walk out on the project in disgust. Given the participants and the vintage, it should have been a classic but in reality the album is more of a missed opportunity – a collection of interesting ideas, but underwhelming executions. The opening title track is a nine minute improvisational jam session that rhythmically reminds me of a hybrid of Can and electric-Miles Davis, but with Riley and Cale’s long-winded indulgent noodling ruining whatever coolness the song may have otherwise had. “The Hall Of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles” is better, with Cale and Riley’s meditations on the piano and soprano saxophone, respectively, beautifully intertwining with one another. “The Soul Of Patrick Lee” is the album’s only song to feature vocals, yet for some unknown reason they’re sung by Adam Miller, whose voice sounds so much like Cale’s that you wonder why he didn’t just record them himself (oddly enough, Miller would go on to write hit songs for teen sensation David Cassidy). “The Ides Of March” is another long improvisational piece, with dueling drums at the outset giving the track something of a New Orleans feel which Cale and Riley obliterate in a haze of minimalist piano attacks over the course of the next 11 minutes. It ends with “The Protégé”, another instrumental, this one sounding like a warm-up for Cale’s trio of mid-‘70s slithery rock albums. Cale and Riley spend just about all of Anthrax’s thirty-four minutes standing on the precipice of something great, without ever really finding it, which leaves the listener feeling frustrated and mildly dissatisfied.
Everyone visiting this site should be somewhat familiar with Sid Vicious and his infamous self-destructive persona by now. Vicious’ (born John Ritchie) brief tenure in the public spotlight was marked by scandals, fights, drug addiction and the alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a New York City hotel in 1978. Unfortunately these headline-grabbing acts ended up defining the mainstream public’s perception of punk rock for years following his death in 1979. Teddie Dahlin’s book, A Vicious Love Story, shows readers that there was a different side of Vicious, which is what makes it a revelatory read. Living in Norway, a sixteen year-old Dahlin was drafted in to be The Sex Pistols’ interpreter during a two day tour stop in Trondheim. Dahlin wasn’t particularly a fan of The Sex Pistols or punk rock, but she took the job anyway and almost immediately found herself falling for the charms of Sid Vicious, who she paints as a shy and insecure person haplessly caught up in his band’s whirlwind of media outrage and manufactured chaos. Their romance ended forty eight hours later when the band rolled out of town, but during that time Vicious spoke repeatedly about wanting to dump his girlfriend Nancy Spungen for Dahlin, creating a tantalizing “what if” scenario for fans to ponder (although it also makes you wonder how many other girls Vicious told a similar story to on tour). A Vicious Love Story isn’t the most professionally put together book I’ve ever read – there are errors, the margins on every page are laughably large, and many of the pictures are rotated 90 degrees from horizontal – but even with those faults, it’s kind of refreshing to read about a mythic band like the Pistols from the perspective of someone who wasn’t a musical writer, or even a fan. Dahlin’s tale includes many conversations recounted line for line and minor details of seemingly mundane events from those romantic days more than three decades ago, which means she either has a perfect photographic memory, or she’s filling in some gaps in order to flesh out the story. Either way, A Vicious Love Story is a good read, so I’ll forgive the author for any minor embellishments or truth-bending. Her first-hand tale is supplemented by quotes and additional perspective from those who travelled in the Sex Pistols’ orbit, like roadie Roadent, Casino Steel (The Boys), Viv Albertine (The Slits), and others. Good stuff.