Last year I had the distinct pleasure of making these collages for the interior of HomeMakers Bar in Cincinnati. Each collage spotlights a different era – 50’s, 60’s, 70s, playfully subverting the traditional iconography of homemaking, cocktail culture, and swank entertaining. In the words of their inspired founders Julia Petiprin, Catherine Manabat, HomeMakers Bar is “a slightly retro, mostly modern cocktail bar that feels like a house party.” While I can only admire the delightful food and drink offerings virtually, I can say that the space and decor is a showstopper. It is, I think, hard to pull of something fresh in a “retro” mode and HomeMakers Bar has clearly emerged as a singular creative and culinary statement that easily transcends its original inspirations. (More interior images can be found on the portfolio page, here.)
PLAGUE UPDATE: With considerable trepidation, I checked in on HomeMakers Bar recently and was ecstatic to see that they are rising to the moment with their signature verve and flair – sharing recipes, hosting cocktail hours, workshops, hangs, and general bonhomie. If you can support them in any way, do. Fucking bravo!
The year in boss tuneage began with a magical gift of the uncanny – Chris Connolly’s Bowie channelling collective Sons of the Silent Age full-dress live rendering of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps at the Metro in Chicago…. an album Bowie himself never toured. Amazing! — the searing opener “It’s No Game” with the Japanese verses live, while Connelly, in full sci-fi Pierrot makeup, screaming while a guy who looked like Martin Freeman dressed like Robert Fripp played the shredding Robert Fripp leads. I bought Scary Monsters when I was a kid and this song, especially, was, I’m certain, the weirdest piece of music I had ever heard and it stuck the weird in me deep, a weird which has never left me. I’ve loved it to pieces ever since.
Let me be measured here in my praise — Mary Timony has cast off her earthly bonds and risen Phoenix-like as the flame-winged incarnation of radness itself. Her accomplice in raditude, Betsy Wright, serves as the royal ambassadrix of Rock & Roll to the entire, ever-expanding, universe. Together in Ex Hex, their new record has given me more pure unalloyed rock pleasure than anything in years. It shreds, it rips, It’s Real. The record of the year doing donuts in the parking lot behind the mall of your teenage dreams.
Let “A Shot at Love” by VR SEX, from this years’ re-issue of an out of print cassette EP, Horseplay, stand in for the new VR SEX EP, Human Traffic Jam, as well as the terrific new Drab Majesty record Modern Mirror. All these are snaky tendrils and foggy manifestations of Andrew Clinco, finally having achieved escape velocity from mere gothy, synth-punk revivalism into a glorious trajectory of his own. Rushing over from seeing Bryan Ferry that same night, the killer live set Drab Majesty delivered was a revelation — a Saturnalia of weirdness packed to the gills with weird kids weirding all over each other.
Two 80’s hardcore titans delivered mind-blowing, and distinctly definitive, live shows. Flipper, with a feral David Yow on vocals, conjured the vibe of a classic DIY basement show – a reminder that before they became a thing shows like this were motley, random, shambolic, wet, sloppy, scattered, immediate, joyful, confrontational, and above all – super fucking weird. Speaking of which, it’s worth remembering just how super fucking weird the Misfits were back in the 80’s. Because for all of his subsequent goofiness and cult popularity, Glenn Danzig was as much a foundational hardcore pioneer as Henry Rollins, Ian Ian Mackaye or HR. It’s why their recent sellout of Madison Square Garden and stadium show at the Wells Fargo Center here in Philly was felt like such a triumph — because the weirdest band of all the hardcore weirdos took it all the way to the top of the heap (and because for all the preposterous Liberace robo-demon costumes and flaming pumpkins onstage, as song followed song it became clear that Glenn Danzig might not have written a single bad one) Hearing a stadium full of humans bellow “There’s some kinda love, and there’s some kinda hate. The maggots in the eye of love won’t copulate” in ecstatic union suggests there may be hope for the species after all.
2014’s Welcome Back to Milk by Du Blonde began began as a nervous breakdown, exploded like an estrogen fueled roman candle, and was my favorite record that year. Waited, bated, and finally Beth Jeans Houghton issued another beautifully rendered sizzler, Lung Bread for Daddy, but this time she did everything herself. This record is so primitive, so primal that it reminds me less of other musical references than of, of all things, the lone wolf artist Joseph Beuys, wrapped in his grey thick felt sculpting sublime forms out of raw animal fat. Primitive like that. Weird like that. Art like that.
Mittageisen (named after the German version of Siouxsie’s “Metal Postcard”) belongs to a quirky subset of now beloved records that I bought, unheard and unknown, solely on the basis of the record cover. This one flashed its weird in all the right ways and delightfully delivered — moody, Swiss cold wave soundscapes of intense instrumental impact.
There’s a limit to how many rock and roll basket cases you can healthily adopt, and I’m constitutionally resistant to the skeezy charms of heroin junkie pirate types… let someone else feed the memory of Johnny Thunders, or genuflect before Keith Richards’ skank-ass skull ring, blah blah… but I happened to hear this, second recent record by the Only One’s Peter Perrett and I gotta say, pretty charming skeez from this legendary heroin junkie pirate.
Another archival score this year was discovering Boys Next Door, Nick Cave’s disowned, or at least disparaged embryonic stage of the Birthday Party. I get it I guess, from his Olympian vantage its nervy scribblings must seem oh-so-conventional… but the weird was there from the beginning. Hearing the band playing their way out from under post-punk and new wave forms, almost literally song by song, arriving by the end of the record at “Shivers,” — the first acknowledged Birthday Party classic — is thrilling. No such anxious complications get in the way of Shellac’s meticulous vinyl re-issue of their Peel/BBC sessions. Now comfortably settled into a beloved institution for the converted, the initial four song session from 1994 is a stunning reminder of their live-wire novelty.
Ladytron become one of my favorite bands largely during their absence so their return to active service was a cause for celebration down our way, where this reunion record was played repeatedly at loud volume, occasioning appreciative gestures, head nodding, rhythmic tapping of nearby objects in time to the various fat beats of its excellent grooves… also, many additional groovy moods throughout this year were accompanied by the bleeps, blips & bloopy pleasures of Xeno & Oaklander.
“it was the late ’80s…. Everything that was popular then in Los Angeles was starting to irritate the shit out of me. I was getting really bummed. Stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening and I was like, ‘I fucking hate them so much, I have to write the anti-Red Hot Chili Peppers songs’” Goodbye Kim Shattuck, thank you Muffs.
DOWNLOAD THE COMP HERE.
The pulpit beneath a carved depiction of the daily ecstasy and rapture of Mary Magdalene, The Basilica of St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • the pulls of a small organ in the same Basilica • a standard roadside boulangerie, the A52 at Roquevaire, Aix-en-Provence • Some opulence in the Palace of Versailles • some unruly triffids spilling out in the 7th arrondissement • a mannequin on the Rue de la Fontaine au Roi • I spy you up there, above the frieze, amidst yet more opulence in the Palace of Versailles • Welcome to the opulence of the Palace of Versailles! • a folio at Les Puces • Dior Barbie • A horn of plenty amidst the opulence of the Palace of Versailles • An antique pair amongst antiques, St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • Caryatids by Pierre Lescot in the Louvre • Marianne above the Place de la République
by Tess Gallagher
I was walking through a vast darkness
in a dress studded with diamonds, the cloth
under them like chain mail—metallic,
form fitting like the sea to its horizon. I could
hear waves breaking on the shore and far off
concertina music drifting over the dunes. What
was I doing in high heels in sand in a diamond-studded
dress that had to be stolen? Fear washed
through me, as if one of those waves had
risen up and, against all the rules of waves,
splashed me from the shoulders
down. I was wet with diamonds and fear.
A small boat held offshore with its cold
yellow light pointing a long watery finger at me
while the stolen feeling of the dress sparkled
my location out into the universe. Thief! Thief!
came an interplanetary cry, causing me to
gaze up into the star-brilliant firmament,
for it wasn’t just a sky anymore. It had
taken on biblical stature. How had I
gotten into this dress, these unruly
waves, this queasy feeling I would be
found out? Time to run! my heart said,
pumping away under its brocade
of diamonds. Strange vacancies had
accumulated after all my sleep-plundered
nights. Thief! came the cry again, as if
I should recognize myself. And I did.
I flung those high heels into the depths,
took up my newfound identity, and without
the least remorse, began to run those diamonds
right out of this world.
One of life’s distinct pleasures is watching segments of a Mousetrap-like contraption give way to one another; after each clever, unlikely & off kilter span there is always the gentlest, most elegant of handoffs…. it’s like reading this poem, and the silver bearing that drops in at the beginning rolls out a swirled marble, a world…. Poetry Magazine, March 2019
All the two headed dogs, bloody hammers, blieb alien uncreators, the wind and more were lurid carousels for our delight; they also drew off the heat and fevers from his sazzled soul. And his exquisite love songs are the tributes he paid to rock & roll for making his demons dance.
I think thinking about the physics of sadness can tell us something about the person we’re sad about, especially when we don’t know them personally. Like when Bowie died it felt like a celestial object had imploded and vanished. That feels about right. I was in the record store earlier this evening when I found out Roky died. As I took it in, I swear it felt for all the world like he physically left my body. For me Roky lived inside, wound deep and flowering in and around the bright, hot-house things and love, utter, primal, starry eyed love, the kind of love that when you see it, it’ll free you, like magic.
(bottom photo: Roky @ Underground Arts, Philadelphia on September 12th, 2017 / sitting in utter serenity like a psychedelic Totoro amidst a cyclone of sizzlin’ fuzz)
Recently I was staying in a country house in Arkville, New York, nestled in the western Catskill mountains. The house was furnished in fine, spare retail-modernist Design-Within-Reach style and, as a seemingly grand accent, featured a stately grand piano. Lovely. Easy enough to take for granted. However, my brother-in-law, a gifted musician and programmer, sensitive to things like instruments, systems and the built environment, was naturally drawn to inspect this rather grand grand piano a bit more closely. What he discovered was nothing less than an astonishment – grafted throughout the body of this Steinway piano was a massive electrical, analog, mechanical self-playing (or “reproducing”) mechanism. Just exploring the machine, with no understanding or appreciation for its functions, was incredible in itself. Exquisite construction, the combination of engineering, instrumentation and carpentry. It was also profoundly otherworldly, like actually discovering some marooned technology from an alternate steampunk version of our reality. For real.
Reading about it later only deepened my fascination. The excerpts below, taken from two restoration companies, give a sense of the breathtaking ingenuity of these devices. Consider they debuted in 1914, only a few years after commercial electricity itself…
For anyone with even a glimmer of interest I highly recommend fully going down the rabbit hole on this technology – following the technological details of how these functioned, and how the rolls were recorded – all of it. Gobsmacking.
The Reproducing Player Grand Piano was the most technologically advanced form of home entertainment during the early 20th Century. Designed to reproduce a live performance, these instruments could mimic every nuance of a real pianist, giving the illusion of a true live performance in real time. These instruments would have cost as much as $3,500+ new in the 1920s, the cost of a small house. The ultimate home entertainment system of the Gatsby age, these rare pianos were built in small numbers and are quite rare today.
The Steinway & Sons Duo-Art player consists of over 8,200 moving parts… as in all standard reproducing pianos, an electric suction pump powers the playing mechanism and supplies a sufficient level of suction for the maximum loudness needed by the piano. Proprietary dynamic control devices reduce this suction level in various sophisticated ways so that a wide variety of dynamic effects is possible.
A perforated music roll passes over a tracker bar, which has holes in it connected via many small tubes to the individual note mechanisms of the instrument. At the left-hand edge of the music roll (and also at the right-hand, which is not shown), there are four special perforation positions which do not operate notes…the four dynamic coding perforations on the roll can be combined, allowing for sixteen degrees of dynamic control.
Duo-Art used a real-time perforator to produce an original roll as the artist played. Dynamics were not recorded automatically but were created on the roll as the artist played, by two dials and their associated mechanisms, controlled by the recording producer, who sat to the left and slightly behind the pianist.
Under the keys of the recording piano was a series of electrical contacts which ran through a cable to a separate room, where the rather noisy perforating machine was housed.
Once an Aeolian Duo-Art information original roll had been perforated, the roll was then copied to a much longer stencil roll, on thicker paper, which was then used to produce several copies for editing purposes, known as trials… Lastly, the final trial was approved and signed by the pianist, and became a pattern, to be used as a proofing copy in the manufacture of the roll for commercial sale.
To be great, to be a man of genius, to be famous, to be much loved and much hated; to be much praised and much dispraised; to have a passion for creation and passion for women; to be descended from one of the oldest French families; to be abnormal and inhuman; to have sardonic humor and intense presence of mind; to adore nights more than days—to adore and to detest immensely; to squander much of one’s substance in riotous living, to have a terribly direct eye and as direct a force of hand; to be capable of painting certain things which have never yet existed for us on the canvas; to be angry with his material, as his brutal instincts seize hold on him; these, chosen at random, are certain of the distinguishing qualities of Lautrec.
There was a moment, live, as the first half of “Jubilee Street” was rounding the bend that the music suddenly lurched, as if unexpectedly struck with a great force. The band rumbled, then just — detonated; Nick Cave stood, stock still, seemingly absorbing the full force of the blast behind him. Then — he cracked, lengthwise, like a thunderclap. “LOOK AT ME NOW / I’M TRANSFORMING, I’M VIBRATING, I’M GLOWING / LOOK AT ME NOW.” For the rest of the night Nick Cave kept scraping the clouds.
Remember the way the locks, switches and gizmos worked in Aeon Flux? Inscrutable components, switches, and dials would click, whirr, latch, and trip in improbable combinations until the lock gave way, blossoming open like a mechanical flower. Belbury Poly’s groovy puzzle-box collage instrumentals worked on me the same way – BBC library grooves, spooky Hammer film soundtrack flourishes, tinkling harpsichord, hazy bits of stoned dialog, click, whirr, clank, trip, click, release, besotted. High Church of Geek ambient.
Dunno ’bout you but my theory is that Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Album is, in fact, the latest in the series of mysterious dark Monoliths left scattered across the universe by forgotten extraterrestrials lost forever to the hazy mists of galactic time.
Musically, Philadelphia is generally pretty lush, but surf-wise it’s a parched, horizon blurring desert. It was fortuitous then, that live, California’s La Luz were short a keyboardist, because guitarist Shana Cleveland just flat tore up — shredding, barreling, spraying gnarly surf leads all over every tune. A mirage on fire, a mirage dressed in fetching matching sailor suits, on fire, to be precise. It was awesome. On the Bandcamp page for this year’s Floating Features, one “Ingwit” sought to congratulate La Luz “for somehow managing to take the heat shimmer on a long stretch of summer blacktop and press it onto vinyl.” I’m with Ingwit – well put, and well done ladies. \shaka/
My enthusiasm for Liz Phair used to run from the beginning of the song “Supernova” to the end, peaking with “Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16. And you fuck like a volcano, and you’re everything to me.” Maximum hella romantic! “Stratford-on-guy” randomly unspooled one afternoon from the depths of my electric phone and I was totally mesmerized. What a weird, gorgeous fever dream. I immediately played it a few more times in a row, hungry for its hypnotic incantations. “It took an hour, maybe a day. But once I really listened the noise just fell away.” Nice then, that this little epiphany coincided with this years’ 30th anniversary of Exile in Guyville releases. I guess I’m finally far enough from Guyville to dig the exile.
The recently revivified Chills have been a deeply welcome gift these past few years. On his new record Snowbound, Martin Phillips finally leaves behind his legendary cache of demos and sketches he’s mined for nearly four decades. The new, freshly written songs are largely a collective atonement – grappling and reconciling with years of travails, addiction, sundered relationships and shredded dreams. “Complex,” while rooted in those themes, utterly transcends them, emerging as one of best songs in an already storied songbook. A giant tune, a world in miniature, a new wave roller-coster inside a snow globe. Literally literally.
It took a while, but I finally fully grok and groove the jittery, grimy white heat rhythms of mid 70s New York City punk and their sonic cousins in likeminded boroughs. Human Switchboard’s Who’s Landing In My Hanger LP was a crate-digging score based on a recollected shard of a positive review from an old Trouser Press record guide. What a blast! NYC by way of Cleveland like the Dead Boys, it’s all glorious fan-fic takes on Deborah Harry and Lou Reed stylings, Modern Lovers primitivism and Television’s ramshackle ambition.
The first fang is is for all the rad bell-bottomed boogie bands led by badass lasses this year: Lucifer, Death Valley Girls, Ruby the Hatchet – non of whom, however, could match the bite of fang two – Betsy Wright. Wright took a break from being Mary Timony’s swashbuckling wing-woman in Ex Hex to grand marshal the 28 minute hesher parade that is the Bat Fangs LP. One of their t-shirts depicts a screaming bat with three yellow eyes, ears pointed like spikes, surrounded by concentric bands of melting neon. Every song on this record sounds just like that bat looks. Live — goodness gracious — Wright is a sneering, kicking, grinning, soloing, guitar-pointing total fucking rock monster. She also has a supremely boss collection of catsuits, boy’s small-town athletic shirts, and vintage metal T’s. Between the chops and the flair Wright might be the foxiest performer I have ever seen on stage, ever. When we need someone to represent *rock-n-roll* to aliens, send Betsy Wright.
In 2002, on Halloween, the Essex Green played a CMJ Music Marathon showcase at CBGBs dressed as the Royal Tenenbaums. Their autumnal reunion this year was a welcome occasion for this aging hipster to revisit a time when everything about that sentence was still fresh (or simply existed.) And I never tire of their erudite preppy boho fixations (“Slone Ranger” indeed) nor the burr in Sasha Bell’s voice.
With the release of Silhouettes and Statues Goth rock finally has gotten its archeological exhumation — the results of which are as dense and indispensable as the full Nuggets box set was for garage rock. Released in mid-2017, it’s taken me the better part of a year to explore its murky depths. Treasures and pick-ups abound, (amid swaths of utter muck – nothing rots like bad Goth) Zero Le Creche’s glammy-boomy obscurity “Last Year’s Wife” led down a hidey hole to the wonderful Psychedelic Furs/Bauhaus (right? right.) mashup of “Falling” which dominated the front half of this year’s groovin’.
This year the Sevateem self released Caves, a 16-track indie-electronic pop album inspired by an iconic classic Doctor Who episode from the early 80s. In “Anywhere In The Universe” the Doctor’s companion wonders why he never takes her anywhere nice. (The rationale for the spareness of description, of course, is that even plainspoken it will either engender waves of high geek appreciation, or remain as profoundly un-compelling as the manner in which its been described. Care for a Jelly baby? )
When I first tuned in Meg Remy’s US Girls were a profoundly insular affair, jerry-rigged transistor-kit transmissions of girl-group glitch outs. But recently she’s pointed her antenna towards the outside world, moving from secret wavelengths to broadcast frequencies. Her sound has filled out, shaped by wily and pop savvy comrades with some seriously deep chops. Live, touring behind her astonishing In a Poem Unlimited, I kept thinking of, honestly, Bowie. Bowie the avant grade pied piper, moving from station to station, seducing listeners into his jangled, cut up art along danceable grooves and modern love. Remy’s weird is going pro.
Alice Bag’s reemergence has been absolutely exhilarating. Bag was a major dynamo in the early LA punk rock scene, fronting the band the Bags, appearing as the Alice Bag Band in the seminal Decline of Western Civilization documentary, running wild in the streets with accomplices like Belinda Go-Go, Patricia Morrison and Pleasant Gehman (go google ’em all). She later worked for many years as a teacher, while remaining politically engaged as a Chicana and feminist activist. In 2016 she released her first solo record (and first LP ever, considering the Bags never released more than a few singles) and it was a total knockout — a swaggering blend of snarling punk, brassy girl group and Mexican folk. The record was personally and socially political – a bracing reminder how essential and genuinely inspirational punk could and can be. This year she released Blueprint, a another equally urgent and beautifully arranged salvo. Live, the double barreled opening of Bag’s classic “Babylonian Gorgon” into the new “Turn it Up” was seismic — raw, snarling righteous punk bliss as urgent, and more necessary, than ever.
Ok – straight up – The last track will be of limited or little interest to some, perhaps many. I thought it would be of limited interest to me, to wit — Finnish, operatic, power metal. Again — Finnish, operatic, power metal. Perhaps the phrase repels? For me it beckoned – strictly at first, as a curiosity. Encountering a passing reference to this curious amalgam I was led, as all quests for the essence of Finnish, operatic, power metal do, into the realm of Nightwish. First I read, amused; then I listened and was — utterly delighted (that is, while listening I experienced a high degree of gratification and pleasure.) It was gloriously absurd, but breathtaking in the scope of its foolhardy earnest bat-shit-ness. I immediately ordered their 1998 album Oceanborn, roundly considered definitive. While I waited for it to arrive I did experience a spasm of second guessing, a shuddering sense of “Surely not seriously.” One spin through Oceanborn’s rainbow laser glitter symphonies and I was even more delighted – that is, experiencing even higher degrees of gratification and pleasure. I could go on, and on, and many do, the earth over (Vice Magazine even prepared a thorough guide to the world of Nightwish, should you, um, wish.) Then I saw them live. Fucking lords of Asgard they were astonishing!! 6 magnificent Vikings by way of Marvel ‘s Jack Kirby or Branagh’s Thor — a chimera of Iron Maiden, Meatloaf and Brünnhilde fronted by a legit Valkyrie named Floor Jansen! Every song sounded like 20 technicolor rockets red-glare, even before they actually fired 20 technicolor rockets from the stage. Again. And again. A Ragnarock of delight, gratification and pleasure.
DOWNLOAD THE COMP HERE.
BONUS COMPILATION: This year also marks the 10th year of consecutive yearly mixes. As such, I’m commemorating this anniversary with a special compilation featuring a track from each year. Unlike the main mixes, which mix new, live and discovered music of the past year, each track here was released in the year it represents. Enjoy, cheers, etc.
Painted by by Harry Siddons Mowbray they were commissioned as part of a large decorative scheme for the New York mansion of railroad tycoon Collis Potter Huntington. Six of the muses are traditional, while Mowbray invented three new ones — Painting, Agriculture and Science and Electricity.
At first thier cumulative effect was somewhat disorienting – they’re mounted so high that they sit nearly past the terminal angle of the neck. I had to bend backwards to take them in fully. Once I could focus though, I was mesmerized. What a presence each possessed, enhanced by their slightly exaggerated perspectives. And what vivid style — watery and fluid coloring held taught by graphic contours — a gorgeous hybrid evoking academic painting, vintage advertising illustration, social realist propaganda and heroic comics. Make my muses Mowbray’s!
More information here. From the top: Muse of Electricity, Muse of Painting, Muse of Agriculture, Muse of Music, Muse of Lyric Poetry, Muse of Tragedy, Muse of Comedy, Muse of Astronomy.
From top: Milford, Pa; Philadelphia; Madison, CT, and the last two from Georgian Lanes, Parry Sound, Canada
> DOWNLOAD THE COMP HERE
Jethro Tull has been, consistently and ardently, my favorite band for the last 30 years.
Wherever and however far I might drift — across oceans of punk, pop, prog & psychedelia, into sunken caves of dub or swampy lagoons of goth, down pulsing Krautrock channels, upended by typhoons of metal — I always tie back up with Tull.1
My conversion experience occurred in profoundly improbable circumstances. In 1988 I was in high school, peaking with hardcore punk rock fever. Amongst our rag-tag handful of like-minded misfits, Suffer, a new album by Bad Religion (back then a far lesser known band) was gathering some serious killer buzz. Finally, one kid scored it from an older brother and brought it in for me to gym class. I promptly inserted the home recorded tape into my AIWA walkman.
Now, if you recall, the key feature of mid-period Walkmen was “auto reverse” functionality allowing you to play either side of the tape without physically reversing the cassette. Pressing play, then, I entered a singular, un-repeatable fantasia where basically, for about maybe 15 seconds, I thought some random snippet of what turned out to be Jethro Tull was the new Bad Religion. And fucking loving it. A little perplexing, surely, but yea, fucking loving it. Soon enough I regained my bearings and flipped over to the other side, promptly losing myself in the masterwork that was Suffer.2
But in those disorienting seconds the sonic allure of Jethro Tull took hold. Then and there, I managed to grok a concentrated dose of their jam — those sizzling, off-kilter riffs, improbable melodies, all cinched up tight by the singular rough velvet timbre of Ian Anderson’s voice. And the whole flute thing. So, even as I remained the doctrinaire punk, the spell and the die were cast.3
My enthusiasm for Tull has often struck others as a bit incongruous, given my other musical pleasures and predilections. Over the years, one cat or another has asked me to put together a representative mix of their tunes. While these requests are rooted, I’m sure, in genuine open curiosity, I always detect a flash of a skeptical edge, a pointed demand to justify Tull’s place in my celestial hierarchy. So, in recognition of their 50th year, and my three decades of devoted fan-hood, it feels like high time I take my own measure of their radness.
On Jethro Tull’s “greatest hits” there is a mighty and widely shared consensus. The songs collected on the 1976 best-of LP’s M.U. The Best of Jethro Tull, with the exception of one fan-rewarding rarity, are canonical, enduring FM rock radio staples. However Tull’s stature as classic rock powerhouse draws selectively from a deeply weird, idiosyncratic body of work.4
This particular selection of tunes, first and foremost, is my own rendering of Jethro Tull’s singular sensibility — drawing at times on key rarities, alternate recordings, live performances, and deep album cuts. This is not showboating fan service or willful obscurantism. Rather, it is an effort to make a a broader case for Tull as an absolutely killer psychedelic rock band of particular interest to those inclined (like the reputation enjoyed, let’s say, by Van Der Graf Generator). All the songs are in some way fundamental to the band’s identity, while also being top-grade left-of-the-dial rock and roll.
For me Jethro Tull’s classic period is comprised of four rather distinct phases which flow and feather into one other at the edges.5 By around 1969 Anderson had established nearly complete aesthetic control of the band. He was still working within and inside recognized rock forms, but songs were beginning to be yanked into distinctive shapes (A Time For Everything?, To Cry You A Song, Dr Bogenbroom) or stretched out into ambitious suites (Wondering Aloud, Again). All the while, though, riffs remained the anchor and engine of the songs.6
With 1971’s Aqualung, Anderson’s titanic talent, personal passions and quirks (and, frankly, ego) had utterly subsumed the band. Here begin his alchemical experiments with various ratios of rock, English folk, classical, and Elizabethan music. Lyrically he also sets off alone for parts unknown, with his mix of religious allegory, detailed character sketches, verbal dexterity, general inscrutability, and no small dose of Python-esque humor. This era simultaneously produced their biggest popular successes, fiercest critical drubbings, and acres of stunning, exhilarating and challenging music (Cross-Eyed Mary,7 Lick Your Fingers Clean, No Rehearsal)
Around this time Tull had also cemented its reputation as a crushingly stellar live act (No Lullaby, Passion Play Extract, Thick As A Brick). Impeccable, muscular musicianship, rollercoaster set-lists, all wildly energized by Anderson’s legendary showmanship – a galvanizing, whirling, one-footed, flute brandishing, cod-pieced dervish.
Tull’s massive sales and live success had the additional benefit of inoculating the band, and especially Anderson, against any permanent scarring from what was a turbulent and tumultuous period of peak fame, popularity and exposure. By the mid 70’s Anderson was purposely withdrawing from the show-biz hullaballoo, spending more and more time in various countrysides. In 1978 he bought and moved to an estate out by the Outer Hebrides in remote Scotland. A growing interest in folklore, fantasy tales and British rural traditions began to profoundly shape Anderson’s writing (Hunting Girl). This rural sensibility culminated in a trilogy of folk rock records with which Tull closed out the decade.
This period, much beloved by fans, was memorialized by the double LP live album Bursting Out and came to an abrupt and tragic end with the death in 1979 of Tull’s bassist John Glascock. Disbanding the band indefinitely, Anderson began work on a solo record which reflected his bourgeoning interest in synthesizers.
Anderson’s label Chrysalis insisted that the record be credited to the band, thus forcibly inaugurating Jethro Tull’s quirky electronic folk era. Although it yielded some choice sides (Black Sunday) and arguably led to one last classic album, 1982’s Broadsword and the Beast,8 this new tack remained divisive among fans, critically thrashed, and profoundly out of sync with general audiences. Anderson mined this sound for one more record with rapidly diminishing returns.9
Meanwhile, all along, weaving and braiding through these wild knotty morphings was Anderson’s steady, almost devotional, composition of exquisite acoustic guitar songs (Only Solitaire, One White Duck / Nothing At All, Nursie). Regularly deployed on every album, taken together they comprise an alternate songbook of consistently remarkable beauty and craft.
The title Oblique Critique is a reversal of “Critique Oblique,” the title of a segment of 1972’s single song-length record A Passion Play. Besides being an apt title, it’s fitting that it’s taken from a record that is nothing less than Tull apotheosis – Majestic, exhilarating, wildly ambitious, overthought, dead serious, ostentatiously clever, in patches profoundly silly, passionately beloved by fans (except by those that passionately dislike it), reviled by the rock “intelligencia,” and utterly impenetrable to the uninitiated. And of course, stateside, it went to #1 on the charts.
Front cover art by Rebecca Caviness
Back cover photo by Dan Shepelavy
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Some notes, for those inclined…
1 An island which I imagine to be very much like the the actual Scottish island of Skye, home to the Strathaird Estate which Tull’s Ian Anderson bought and moved to in 1978. Scottish mountaineer William Hutchison Murray described the island as “sixty miles long, but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state.” There Anderson began his storied adventures in commercial salmon fishing. I always imaged its verdant rolling lands to be patrolled by colonies of Anderson’s beloved Bengal cats — a totally bad-ass domestic house cat developed to look like leopards or tigers.
2 thereby establishing my second favorite band of all time – Bad Religion. The Jethro Tull/Bad Religion connection gets even more uncanny. Prior to Suffer, Bad Religion had released its infamous sophomore LP, Into the Unknown. In bewildering contrast to their rough hardcore debut the new record was a reverb drenched, organ swirled, heady psych record that had, as some critics pointed out, more in common with Hawkwind than any known punk reference points (If that sounds pretty amazing it’s because it is. Into the Unknown is an ace record.) It caused a mighty kerfuffle, helped precipitate the bands’ breakup, and was largely disowned after it’s release and hostile reception. In an later interview Bad Religion’s singer Greg Graffin explained that while he was still immersed in the hardcore scene he had developed an powerful affection for Tull and felt compelled to write a set of like-minded songs. He felt it was the most punk rock thing he could do.
3 1988 was a pretty exciting time to have been introduced to Tull. The year prior had seen the release of Crest of A Knave, seen as something of a comeback after 1984’s listless Under Wraps. Knave’s lead single, the (honestly) atrocious “Steel Monkey,” famously and improbably won the inaugural Heavy Metal Grammy award that year, beating out the third band in my high school era holy trinity: Metallica)
Crest of A Knave was also the first record made after Anderson’s battle with a significant throat infection that permanently cleaved off the upper registers of his voice. Although he has gamely and often deftly adjusted his new material and live arrangements to compensate, the music has dimmed overall a bit as a result.
What was seismic in 1988 was the release of the massive 5LP box set 20 Years of Jethro Tull. One of the best fan-focused box sets ever released it featured over four hours of largely unreleased material. Fragments of legendarily scrapped albums, enough rare B-sides to turn their parent records into double LP’s, revelatory studio outtakes and alternate versions — with one stroke it presented a massive and fascinating expansion of Tull’s classic oeuvre.
4 A dynamic they share with, for example, Roxy Music, who’s silky hits can be defiantly at odds with their prickly and at times aggressively odd catalog. This is in contrast, I’d argue, with other prog/glam/AOR/stadium superstars like Pink Floyd, the Who, or Yes where the “hits” and the rest of the oeuvre are much more of a piece. Incidentally, Roxy opened for Tull on their 1972 tour – with both bands at the apex of their powers it must have been astonishing.
5 I have a generally strong allergy to the blues, and as a result don’t really much rate or personally enjoy the first two Tull studio LPs. However, for blues-inclined listeners they have much to offer, not the least of which is tracking Anderson’s take on and emergence from the form. And Anderson clearly considers it a legit component of their overall legacy as he has occasionally returned to this period live.
6 In his review of 1970’s Benefit, critic Robert Christgau, by no measure a fan of the band (“I find [their] success very depressing”) allowed that Anderson “does have one undeniable gift, though — he knows how to deploy riffs.”
7 There exists an endearing bonhomie between the classic British metal scene and Tull. In 1968 Sabbath’s Tony Iommi did a split second stint as a Tull member, and remained a pal and supporter ever since. Anderson and Lemmy were longstanding and unlikely chums (Anderson titled a superb recently discovered outtake from Songs From the Wood “Old Aces Die Hard” in tribute to Lemmy.) Iron Maiden, particularity, are massive Tull fans. Their barnstorming cover of “Crosseyed Mary” is a glorious toast and fond tribute — and for me, the singular instance of a Tull cover worth listening to.
8 In putting together this compilation I was surprised that Broadsword and the Beast, an album I adore, stubbornly resisted representation. It is a tremendously entertaining record, especially in its expanded nearly double LP form, with many personal favorites (“The Clasp,” “Pussy Willow,” “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow,” “Down At the End of Your Road”) But the songs withered and wobbled when taken out of context. Ultimately I think Broadsword is a particularly insular record, and one that makes sense only within the context of deep fandom. It is also a profoundly geeky album, with a heavy D&D vibe that may be for converts only.
9 In retrospect the run of albums 1988’s Crest of a Knave inaugurated are, under even the most charitable lights, a spotty patch. The muse stirred a bit on two largely acoustic solo records in the early ‘aughts. However, the real “comeback” would have to wait until 2012 when Anderson, now operating solo, unexpectedly released a “sequel” to 1972’s Thick as a Brick.
The only thing more absurd than the idea of a sequel to this famously obtuse prog-rock masterpiece is how decent it actually is. Anderson had assembled a virtuoso band that scrupulously recreated the distinctive sonics of 70’s era Tull and he delivered a set of songs to suit. This led in short order to Anderson’s definitive late career triumph Homo Erraticus, another sprawling throwback prog epic, this time wholly original in topics, themes and tunes. Highly recommended.
On a recent unexpected layover in Toronto I happened to see, hoisted high, high above a gloomy black glass office building in Dundas Square, this wonderful sign. Double barreled neon flashing records proclaiming, twice, that YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! Wonderful! Wonderful! A little research revealed the legacy of a one proud Canadian record store chain – a blaring hybrid of Crazy Eddie and Tower Records. Sigh.
[When the thought occurs, I like to take a peek back at the work of artists I’ve featured here in the past and see what’s afoot. I was sad to find that sculptor Christyl Boger just passed away a few months ago on June 17, 2018. She was 59. Her frisky & fetchingly accomplished sculptures remain a welcome delight and a personal favorite — a loss of someone so technically gifted and imaginatively big hearted is no small thing. In honor and appreciation of her and her work I’m reposting the repost of the original post with some additional images. ]
Swan Float, a sculpture by Christyl Boger was a highlight of a recent show at Philadelphia’s Clay Studio filled with strong work: Of This Century: Residents, Fellows and Select Guest Artists. While not pictured, it was of a piece with the work above – a classically elegant, expressive nude entwined with an inflatable beach toy. I was bowled over by its formal beauty, impressed with the perfection of its craft, and amused by its absurdity. The world is a richer place for art that can, without being glazed in snark, simultaneously recall Bernini, Meissen and Koons.