John Peel’s Record Box

Seven-Inch Sundays #1 // Archers of Loaf — “Harnessed in Slums”

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Before mp3s, we used to buy these things called seven-inches, small disks of vinyl, usually played at 45rpm, usually offering an a-side with the band or singer’s single, and backed with (b/w) a b-side offering a song (or songs!) that probably wouldn’t be on the album. A lot of times, 7″s would consist of songs that wouldn’t be on any album. Or that would be it for the band—just the one 7″. I bought many, many of these little disks between 1992 and 1999, and I still have three boxes full of them gathering dust in a utility room.

Anyway, new feature: I’ll pull out one each Sunday, listen to it, photograph it, share some thoughts on it, etc.

For this week, I pulled out the closest box and then pulled out the first 7″ in the stack: Archers of Loaf’s 1995 single for “Harnessed in Slums,” b/w “Telepathic Traffic.”

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“Harnessed in Slums” is the second track from the band’s second album, 1996’s album Vee Vee.

Vee Vee came out shortly after the 1995 EP Vs. the Greatest of All Time, which I think might be the Archers’ best work—or at least, that’s how I remember it. Anyway, I loved this early arc of the band’s career, which kicked off with Icky Mettle, a basically perfect glob of nineties indie rock.

I haven’t listened to Archers of Loaf in years. I lost interest in what the band was doing by the late nineties, and like many of the albums I listened to thousands of times in my teens, I find their music too intertwined in intense memories and feelings to listen to again. I have a hard time extricating the psychic detritus of my youth from certain albums.

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The crunchy warbled opening  of “Harnessed in Slums” brought back a strange rush of the past. I remembered seeing the band—on a school night!—in support of Icky Mettle. My friend Wayne brought a paper headband to the show and guitarist Eric Johnson wore it through most of the set. They gave us the set list (on a paper plate) and autographed stuff. I wonder if they thought it was weird that we wanted their autographs—think it’s weird now. (By the time I was 17 I had almost no interest in talking to anyone in a band, let alone getting an autograph).

“Harnessed in Slums” is a perfect Archers track, poppy, proggy, fake-sloppy, a punk anthem channeled through the crunchy trademark sound of the 1990s NC Triangle. Weirder and darker than Superchunk, tighter and more metallic than Pavement, Archers of Loaf hit a not-too-sweet spot somewhere between prog virtuosity and DIY punk aesthetic. The lyrics are bizarre, maybe meaningless, a shout-along that could have come from a Burroughs cut up (“I want waste / We want waste / They want waste / Slaves want waste”; “Strip the color from the meat of my eye”).

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The b-side is “Telepathic Traffic,” a jam that swells with acoustic guitars and snaky, snarly guitar lines—there’s almost something crime noir about the song. It’s sinister anyway. Eric Bachmann’s opening barks are almost comical, as if he’s imitating some British post-punk hero, before clustering into a pogoing chorus. “Telepathic Traffic” bears a few too many conventions that can become tiresome over an album—the track slows and speeds up unnecessarily when it should plow straight ahead (or perhaps just get faster).

Listening to these tracks again doesn’t make me want to pull out Icky Mettle as much as it makes me want to check out Erich Bachmann’s latest stuff. Has he mellowed out? Added more/different instrumentation? Complicated or simplified his sound? I remember being perplexed by his 1995 solo album Barry Black, which I recall having chamber arrangements. Maybe I should check it out.

Christmas in the Heart — Bob Dylan

When Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart came out a few months ago, most critics obsessed over the ironic possibilities of a Bob Dylan Christmas album, especially one called Christmas in the Heart, especially one with that cover. Had these critics forgotten that Dylan has always held his cards tight to his chest? That he’s been producing his albums for years now under the kinda-Christmasy pseudonym Jack Frost? That he only does what he really wants to do? For many of these critics, the fact that all proceeds of the album go to Feeding America functioned almost as an excuse for (more) weird behavior from Dylan. All one has to do, of course, is simply listen to the music to find that Christmas in the Heart is a minor masterpiece in the Christmas music genre and a wonderful, strange fit in the Dylan canon.

Dylan tackles fifteen carols and classics in a consistent, old-timey style evocative of Les Paul and Mary Ford and other hybrid Country & Western of the immediate post-WWII era. Dylan’s production is warm and simple, showcasing the talent of his players and backup singers. Opener “Here Comes Santa Claus” sets a lively pace that slows down over the course of the album’s first side, through a lush “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that wrangles just the right mix of bitter and sweet. Dylan’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” is downright ethereal. The album picks up again with its only barnburner, a fired-up version of Lawrence Welk’s polka, “Must Be Christmas.” Do yourself a favor and enrich your life by watching the marvelous video (seriously watch it, if for nothing else than for Dylan’s surreal wig):

The energy and strange, chaotic madness of “Must Be Christmas” makes for the lively climax of the album, and the video clearly represents Dylan’s vision of Christmas as carnival. Not that it’s all ritual madness, of course. The commercial/spiritual paradox of Christmas comes out in the end, as the record winds down with the secular melancholy of “The Christmas Song” followed by the stirring hymn “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.” If there’s any concern that Dylan is somehow not entirely earnest in his Christmas music–or too earnest in his irony, perhaps–one simply has to listen to the spirit in his gravelly, aging voice. Christmas in the Heart may be ironic, but that shouldn’t diminish its pleasures at all: it’s a self-conscious, loving irony, far from sneering, and certainly not a trick on the listener. It’s a gift of music, really (as corny as that sounds), one that asks the reader to laugh along with it, but also to feel genuine sentiment in the beauty here. Highly recommended–especially on 180 gram vinyl (the vinyl addition includes the album on CD and a 7″ single of “Must Be Christmas” and a B-side of Bob reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with backing music by John Fahey).

William S. Burroughs/John Giorno

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Look at these guys! I kind of have to have this record. If you have a copy, go ahead and send it to me. No? Okay, what about uploading the tracks somewhere as mp3s? No? Okay…

Image and LP info via Brainwashed.

William S. Burroughs/John Giorno (1975), GPS 006-007

William Burroughs

1. “103rd Street Boys” from Junkie 2. excerpt from Naked Lunch 3. “From Here To Eternity” from Exterminator 4. excerpt from Ah Pook Is Here 5. “The Chief Smiles” from Wild Boys 6. “The Green Nun” 7. excerpt from Cities Of The Red Night

John Giorno 8. “Eating Human Meat”

And so as not to just beg for mp3s but to also give, check out Burroughs explaining how tape manipulation helps to expand conciousness in “Origin and Theory of the Tape,” and get horrified by an example of said technique with “Present Time Exercises,” both from Break Through in Grey Room, a collection of Burroughs’s tape experiments and speeches (not to mention a dash of Ornette Coleman freaking freestyle in Morocco).

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At Mount Zoomer

The first five seconds of “Soldier’s Grin,” the first track on At Mount Zoomer, Wolf Parade’s second LP, consist of a spindly synth and guitar duet that announces the program of the rest of the album: tight, lyrical, melodic prog-punk-pop that gets plenty of mileage out of old keyboards and crunchy guitars. This welding of synth with indie-rock guitar reflects the split songwriting duties of Wolf Parade. Like its predecessor, 2005’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, the new record is split almost evenly into songs written and sung by keyboardist Spencer Krug or guitarist Dan Boeckner. The slight stylistic differences between Boeckner’s and Krug’s songs are unified on Zoomer by drummer Arlen Thompson’s big, warm production. Songs like “Call it a Ritual” and “Bang Your Drum” propel on tense, jumpy punk rhythms before letting loose into brief moments of pop satisfaction–a formula that worked so well for the band on Queen Mary. The best moments of the record come though when they try something new. On longer songs like “Fine Young Cannibals” and epic album-closer “Kissing the Beehive” Wolf Parade play with trickier melodies and leave more open space in their music, letting the rhythms and melodies coalesce into tight, beautiful pockets that aren’t overwhelmed by big synths or vocal growls. That’s not to say there isn’t something sublime about thicker numbers like “The Grey Estates,” a keyboard-driven ditty that recalls The Cars, or “Language City,” a song that channels (if not flat out rips off) The Moody Blues’s “Your Wildest Dreams.” Still, there are a few missteps here: “California Dreamer” aims for motortik tension but falls instead into annoying territory, and the first half of Krug’s “An Animal in Your Care” is the worst in indulgent glam-emo. However, “Animal” picks up in its second half, evolving into a crisp stomping guitar and piano workout–but on an album with only nine songs, each one should be perfect. Ultimately, Zoomer won’t disappoint its intended audience. Wolf Parade make the best sort of indie rock comfort food, the kind that recalls the classic bands of the genre (Pixies, Sonic Youth) while also hearkening to the earlier days of college rock (Talking Heads, Television). Really, nothing here pushes boundaries–Wolf Parade’s biggest trick is making you forget that what you’re listening to is really as safe as milk.

At Mount Zoomer will be released June 17 from Sub Pop records.