Still In A Dream: A Story Of Shoegaze 1988-1995 (Cherry Red)


I was practically rabid with anticipation for this boxset, having been a big shoegaze fan during most of the 2000s. The prospect of a five-disc set from the genre’s prime, heavy on deep cuts, was tantalizing. Would Still In A Dream turn me on to a bunch of bands I’d never heard of who were as good as Ride, Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine but, for one reason or another, never got much attention? Would I be spending the next few months buying music from all the great bands the boxset introduced me to?

Well, no. As much I was hoping for Still In A Dream to be a big winner, it’s kind of a mess, with some serious negatives that far outweigh the positives. First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: there’s no My Bloody Valentine songs found here. While it seems strange to have a shoegaze boxset without the band most synonymous with the genre (especially when the title Still In A Dream comes from a My Bloody Valentine song) I’m actually OK with this. It reminds me of a similar situation a decade ago, when Rhino put out an excellent punk rock boxset without any Sex Pistols songs. Besides, it’s a pretty safe bet that anyone shelling out $40-50 for five CDs of shoegaze already has the key My Bloody Valentine albums in their collection.

Next up are the obligatory genre-compilation complaints over who the compliers did and didn’t include in the tracklisting. I can think of a couple of bands that probably should have been included, but weren’t, such as Teenage Filmstars, For Against, Sugar, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Springhouse (whose drummer – and Big Takeover publlisher – Jack Rabid contributed liner notes). But more glaring is the surprisingly long list of bands found here that don’t belong. Sure The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, Luna, Spectrum and Sonic Boom all explored shoegaze-friendly sounds during this period, but they were never called shoegaze. By including them, you might as well include Primal Scream, Dinosaur Jr or The Verve.

Now, here’s the real problem. By having 87 songs and featuring each band only once, the compilers dig too deep into what’s essentially a sub-genre. This means a ridiculous amount of time spent sifting through weak material from bands like Curve or Swirl to find an occasional gold nugget I’d never heard before (Loop, Kitchens Of Distinction, Whipping Boy, and Seefeel all impressed enough to warrant further investigation).

Now that I’ve listed Still In A Dream’s shortcomings, here’s how it could have been better:

*Include multiple tracks from the better bands. What would make a stronger listen and tell the story of the genre better, a second song from a brilliant band like Ride or “Godlike” from the rightfully forgotten band The Dylans (who weren’t shoegaze anyway)? Case closed.

*Open up the set beyond 1995. There’s been a ton of great shoegaze since 1995 to choose from, and by including those songs you weed out the lesser ’88-95 songs, making a more consistent listen.

or……

*Stick with the ’88-95 motif and cut it down to a lean three disc set. All killer, no filler.

By leaving the fat untrimmed, Still In A Daydream drags on and on as it moves chronologically through five discs. Worse, it presents the genre it’s meant to champion in an unflattering light.

Advance Base – Nephew In The Wild (Orindal)


Nephew In The Wild is the second album from Owen Ashworth under the name Advance Base, having previously recorded as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone as far back as the late-’90s. It’s my first exposure to Ashworth’s music, so I can’t really compare it to his discography, but I really like what I hear. The songs are very low-key, with Ashworth using drum machines, an Omnichord, Autoharp, bass, drums and samplers to create a warm and twinkly sonic environment for his sad lyrics, usually about lonely people in the Midwestern United States. If a collection of songs about dead-end people working marginal jobs and living what seems to be pretty crappy lives doesn’t sound like a particularly good time, that’s because it isn’t. However, Ashworth’s a gifted storyteller, with the ability to paint very vivid portraits of the characters and places he sings about. I especially like that he frequently mentions specific locations and names in his songs. Whether he’s getting stoned to Thin Lizzy, making calls on a Citgo payphone, or delivering a pair of songs titled “Christmas in Dearborn” and “Christmas in Milwaukee” you can feel exactly where his characters are and what they’re doing. He’s also got a strong sense of melody, a rich baritone-ish voice that recalls Bill Callahan (Smog), and great guest spots from Howard Draper (who drops mournful lap steel guitar onto “Christmas in Dearborn”) and Jody Weinmann who sings “My Love For You Is Like A Puppy Underfoot”, adding a sense of lightness to the album. It ends with “Kitty Winn”, perhaps the saddest sounding song on the album, yet its lyrics tell the story of someone who’s started a family and won’t be seen “around” anymore, giving you a sense of hope that maybe one of Ashworth’s characters escaped the bleak lifestyle of the last nine songs and found something better for themselves.

 

Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends (Da Capo Press)


I’ve always imagined that John Doe had a book in him somewhere. His band, X, were among the more literary-minded groups of the Los Angeles punk scene, and he met his future (now former) wife, and X co-leader, Exene Cervenka at a poetry workshop. Now that his book, Under The Big Black Sun, has finally arrived, I’m a little perplexed by it. The book’s goal was, in the words of co-author Tom DeSavia, “for the true story of LA punk rock to be told” (note: it should be L.A. not LA – at least they got it right on the front cover), but it didn’t give me much new perspective outside of some passages detailing the influence of the local Mexican culture on punk or the consistent reverence for unrecorded electro-punk innovators The Screamers. If you’ve read We Got The Neutron Bomb, Get In The Van, American Hardcore, or any of the other books where Los Angeles’ punk scene is a player then you’ve pretty much heard it all before, and heard it told more coherently. Instead of a John Doe or X biography, Under the Big Black Sun is a collection of chapters written by a variety of L.A. punk musicians, writers, and scenesters, with only about 20% of the book’s slim 250 pages written by Doe. I get the point this approach is intended to make: There is no “one story” of Los Angeles’ punk. It was a varied multi-dimensional scene where characters as different as Jane Wiedlin (Go-Gos), Jack Grisham (T.S.O.L.) and Mike Watt (Minutemen) could all play important roles. However, with so many other voices so prominently heard, Doe becomes a bit player in his own book and Under The Big Black Sun reads like a collection of sample chapters from a dozen different autobiographies. The good news is that, based on the chapters here, most of those autobiographies would be tremendous (sign me up for Jane Weidlin, Jack Grisham and Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters – Watt’s would be good too, though his rambling style and jazzbo slang would probably make my head hurt over hundreds of pages). Taken chapter by chapter, Under The Big Black Sun is entertaining, but it just doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Oh, and X’s drummer of almost 40 years, DJ Bonebrake, is listed as DJ Bonebreak in one of the photos – a mistake somebody should have caught.

Wand – 1000 Days (Drag City)


1000 Days is the second Wand album of 2015, and the L.A. band’s third full-length since debuting with Ganglion Reef in 2014. Their previous album, Golem, impressed with its mix of thundering proto-metal songs and psych-punk lunacy – the kind of stuff that placed them alongside similarly minded bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall (whose current band The Muggers features members of Wand). While 1000 Days retains some of those elements from Golem’s best songs, they’re now relegated to sections of songs, instead of whole songs. The band try to cover a lot more ground here, frequently turning down the volume for detours into acid-folk, studio-assisted psychedelic explorations, and generally calmer brands of weirdness. In fact they jump around from style-to-style, sound-to-sound, in a rapid-fire way I haven’t heard since the Elephant 6 collective of psychedelically inspired bands was big in the late-’90s. Fair game to Wand for wanting to branch out from what they’ve been doing, but most of the songs on 1000 Days aren’t structurally strong enough to weather their almost constant shape-shifting. By peeling back the Sabbath-gone-punk elements and letting acoustic guitars or synths take the spotlight on songs like the title track or “Stolen Footsteps” they expose singer Cory Hanson’s thin voice, and bad songwriting choices like beating every good lyric they stumble onto (ex: “I don’t need a thing a thing/Cuz I’ve had every dream”) into the ground with repetition. The bands still stirs up exciting moments like the doomy “Broken Sun” and “Paintings Are Dead” but you have to spend too much time shuffling through standard-issue material to find ’em.

Going Underground: American Punk 1979-1989 by George Hurchalla (PM Press)


Going Underground’s subtitle may be “American Punk”, but the book almost exclusively covers the American hardcore movement. Of course author George Hurchalla couldn’t really use that phrase because of Steven Blush’s similar book American Hardcore. Even though Hurchalla’s survey of the regional scenes that dotted the map of American hardcore in 1980’s has some redundancies with Blush’s better known book, it has its own merits which make it a valuable part of your punk library. Most importantly, it focuses heavily on bands whose stories haven’t already been told in great detail. So, while there are obligatory passages on the big guys – Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains…etc. – there’s an equal amount of ink spent on smaller acts like The Fix, Government Issue, and Toxic Reasons. Even when Hurchalla is talking about better known acts he finds new avenues to explore, like Minor Threat’s cold war with TSOL, or the night Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys led a one-off group called Lucifer’s Imperial Heretical Knights of Schism in a musical roast of sorts at the expense of the Bad Brains and their Rastafarian beliefs. Hurchalla’s own experiences as a fan living in Florida and Philadelphia play a large role in the book, with firsthand reports from shows by both local and national touring acts. He also takes excursions into music that was important to him during this era which doesn’t neatly fit into the hardcore genre tag, like The Gun Club or the art-punk comp Keats Rides a Harley. Lastly, Going Underground features a ton of photos that capture the raw excitement of the era, most of which I haven’t seen published before. Like the music itself, Going Underground moves quickly, providing a raw and unflinching look into one of the most important youth movements of the 20th century.

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)


A few months ago I was complaining a to friend about the lack of people under 30 making exciting folk music these days. I began to wonder if the art-form was becoming outdated, made quaint by the technological advances and young people not wanting to play music which is at its best when it’s introspective and subtle. Not long after this discussion I discovered Ryley Walker and his music quickly shut me up. Walker’s a guy in his mid-20s from Rockford, Illinois, but his music is firmly planted in the open-ended folk experimentation of the late-’60s and early-’70s. There’s no way to listen to Primrose Green and not be reminded of guys like John Martyn, Van Morrison (the album cover has elements of both Astral Weeks and His Band & Street Choir), and Tim Buckley. It’s Buckley’s influence that looms largest on the album, with the jazz musicians Walker has backing him creating a mood similar to Buckley’s Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon. At times Walker’s music colors so much within the lines set down by his inspirations that the album feels like the musical equivalent of a Civil War society reenacting the great battles of the 1860s, but he’s so damn good at it that you can’t help but be captivated. Walker’s voice falls somewhere in the neighborhood of Tim Buckley’s and his guitar playing is top notch, but it’s the way those elements work within the larger context of the musicians around him that makes Primrose Green such a strong listen. I don’t often find myself excited by jamming, but musical interludes are a highlight here, with the band often taking off into transcendent flights of fancy that can overshadow the songs they were born out of. Take the title track for example. It’s got a strong vocal performance and the lyrics – inspired by a psychedelic cocktail Walker gives the recipe for on the back cover – are solid, but it peaks when the guitar and piano players lay down expressive solos over the inspired rhythm section of drums and double bass. No matter how you slice it, this is powerful stuff, and Walker’s talents prove that folk music still has a place among young people.

Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements by Bob Mehr (Da Capo Press)


Time is often a great equalizer when it comes to recognizing talent in music, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the case of The Replacements. While the band was modestly successful, selling a few hundred thousand copies of their albums at their commercial peak, their legend has grown exponentially since breaking up in 1991. There’s been a Replacements film (Color Me Obsessed), a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, a wildly popular reunion tour, an oral history book, and now this band biography, penned by music writer Bob Mehr. If you’re a Replacements fan then you probably know the basic outline of their history – punk rock beginnings, wild behavior, acts of self-sabotage, signing with a major label, and some truly brilliant albums – but until you read Trouble Boys you really don’t know the full story. Mehr’s book is the definitive telling as his material is well researched, well written and presented in a serious manner more befitting of a biography of Abraham Lincoln than the band that recorded “Dope Smoking Moron” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”.

Had Mehr simply limited his book to chronicling the band’s activities Trouble Boys would have been perfectly enjoyable reading, but nothing more than a typical rock bio. The book is invaluable because he dives well beneath the surface, creating a highly detailed portrait of the band members, their inner circle and their families. The stories about the often broken homes and mental problems that plagued the band go a long way to explain their chronic drug and alcohol abuse and complete disregard for just about anyone that tried to help them reach their full commercial and creative potential. At first the band’s drunk and surly antics come across as funny. For example, at high profile concerts they would often disappoint fans with sets of half-remembered cover songs they were too drunk and stoned to play to completion. However, somewhere around the mid-’80s these antics take on an increasingly dark quality as the mounting commercial pressure put on the band, combined with Herculean cocaine and booze intake, led to some pretty disturbing behavior like lighting money on fire, damaging tour busses to the tune of $60K, frequent firings, and general mistrust within a band that began with two brothers (Bob and Tommy Stinson) jamming in a basement in Minnesota. By the end, the band’s lives spiraled so far away from anything resembling normalcy or health that you almost feel relieved when you reach the part of the book where they break up. Like Holly George-Warren’s recent biography of Alex Chilton (himself the subject of a Replacement’s song, and one of the few people they respected), Mehr has taken readers to the tenuous point at which brilliance and madness meet and painted a wonderful portrait of the artists who lived there.