Blastitude Number Seven
number 8   june/july 2001
page 5


I'll proudly admit that I do not keep up with bands that are considered "post-rock," but most things featuring an ex-member of Slint are still gonna at least pique my interest. Still, for a lot of reasons I was in no hurry to peep The For Carnation. As a rule, I just don't have the time or money to keep up with Touch and Go. I think the last album I bought from the label was Polvo's Exploded Drawing...what was that, five years ago? And, we've all heard plenty of Slint spin-offs and imitators, but none of them, not even Slint themselves, have approached the glory of Spiderland.
       Their posthumous, mysterious 10-inch release (one side was an outtake from Tweez and the other was an outtake from Spiderland, and nobody knows which is which) was very good but not exactly great, and the same goes for that live version of "Cortez the Killer" that was (is?) on Napster. If even Slint themselves weren't quite measuring up, how could I expect just another Slint spin-off band to be a whole heck of a lot better? Especially one with a name like The For Carnation.
       The…For?...Carnation?? Okay...I mean, I'm all for 'breaking down meaning' and 'playing with signifiers' -- I not only read all of Naked Lunch, I read all of Nova Express, The Soft Machine, AND The Ticket That Exploded -- but for gosh sake, even the most art-damaged among us know that you can't follow an article with a preposition! The only way I can possibly think of the name is that "it" is "for" a girl named Carnation, but then the article "The", which they insist on starting with, messes that all up. Matt Focht kept thinking I was talking about a band called The Four Car Nation, which isn't a great name either, but at least it's an actual phrase!
        So yeah, I might have never heard 'em on my own, but luckily, I'm the kind of guy who has a friend like Troy Van Horn who'll schedule an entire evening's fireside chat with red wine in order to listen to one album. One particular night he brought over this one. Despite it being The For Carnation's third or fourth release, it was my introduction to the band, and I was a near-instant convert. What I heard that night was one long intense mood-piece…and not just some simple drone, but six tracks, each one different; barely, but distinctively, different. They might all sound like they're in the same key, and they might all have the same tempo, but the bass lines are different, the drum patterns are different, the vocals are subtly different…the tug of each song is slightly different, so that the six tracks add up to six different views of the same surface, six different tugs on the same essential chain.
         I've noticed that the word "dub" comes up the most when this album is described, and for good reason -- the bass lines are deep, moody, and minimalist, and intangible space-echo sounds and subdued keyboard stabs haunt throughout. But wait, wait, I know what you're thinking…"dub", "Slint", "Touch and Go"…oh lord, not another "post-rock" "dub-inflected" "project" from Chicago…but baby, don't worry, 'cause this LP transcends genre. You could call it 'dubby,' but the guitar and keyboard and vocal parts over the top of the spaced-out rhythm tracks are strictly American, if anything even kinda 'rootsy' sounding. Finally, a Chicago-connected 'post-rock' album where dub is a dreamy after-effect, and not a self-conscious ingredient.
         P.S. The second best "post-Slint" music I've heard all year is a 16-minute track by the Scottish band Ganger, which appears on the Sound Collector #3 CD (one of those comps that comes with a zine). It's mostly instrumental, and the beginning is maybe a little too 'post-rock' instro-clean-chimey, but that's what's so great about the track, the way they take post-rock and leave it in the DUST within about 6 minutes. The accompanying article describes the Ganger sound nicely: "...a kind of kraut/jazz thing abstracted skywards."

Meisha have a CD that also puts me in the mind of Slint, but in a different way. This time it's the instrumental side of Slint, such as the 10-inch, or the long vocal-free passages on Spiderland. Take that music, and remove the drums and, for the most part, bass, leaving only the subdued interlocking arpeggiating guitars, make a whole album of it, and you've got this CD. Actually, a more appropriate Lousville model would be Rodan and their track "Silver Bible Corner," and if you don't know Rodan you should get their only full-length album Rusty before (or, if you're not as omnivorous as I, instead of) this Meisha album anyway. That sort of gives the review away, but what the hey. It's definitely not a bad CD; their music has certainly been honed into a substantial shape, and I can see it having meditative/cogitative/relaxing applications for many folks in the right situations. And it sounds good to me when on track 6 the constantly tensing and arpeggiating guitars finally give way into free-form distorto noise-destruction. It's a rather thrilling moment, a fine metaphor for freedom only after asceticism (hick translation: work before play). The axes grind out a combined dense, close frequency, like one group-mind on one path, and for awhile there, you think the album's gonna make it…but alas, the noise section too eventually seems to lose some momentum. To their credit, this album was recorded in 1996, and I wouldn't doubt that they've since improved on its distinct possibilites.
        I got the Meisha CD straight from the band at a show they played in Omaha at the Gunboat venue….well, actually, a show in Omaha by a side project of theirs called Arco Flute Foundation. In Omaha, the AFF performed an extremely well thought-out, slow-developing set of, you know, 'higher-key trance psychedelica' through the use of three electric guitars and a propulsive, spacious drummer. To hear these electric guitars slowly massing and releasing in melodic chordal waves for an extended period of time right in front of me in the candle-lit and hushed basement underneath an Omaha boho house party was damn near too much (of a good thing). After 20-30 minutes of uninteruppted music, they even stopped playing and broke into rounds of drone-singing, the first use of vocal cords in their performance, and each time their breath ran out it was punctuated by a short round of clattering improv.
        At that point, they had officially made the basement at Gunboat their own temple space. The crowd was rapt. I wanted a CD, and I got one, and it's got some good sheets-of-overtones space-rock grooves, but it just doesn't quite live up to the show. To its credit, it doesn't really try…but I kinda wish it did. They have a newer LP out that I saw get a good review. It's got hand-painted covers…maybe you should check it out. Or at least see 'em live…they tour quite a bit.

Truly the best Meat Puppets album ever. Side One is so beautiful. Six fully realized songs but the whole thing only lasts 17 minutes. It doesn't even matter what Side Two sounds like, because Side One is so good that Meat Puppets II gets desert island status for it alone.
     It bursts out of the gate with "Split Myself In Two," one of the only real punk-ish hardcore-ish raveups on the whole album. The followup is "Magic Toy Missing", a 1:20 instrumental two-step, great both as a song and, due to its brevity, as a cutesy little bow after the crazed opener. Somehow, as desert-baked and crazy as they always were, the Meat Puppets always remained cute. Even as they make noise and howl/mumble weird surrealisms, they clearly aim to make the listener smile here and there, and maybe even laugh. Even their band name,
an image at once creepy and playful, represents this strange dichotomy.
      Track three is "Lost," as in "lost on the freeway again…lost on the freeway again…", covered by the Minutemen, which was how I first heard it. "Lost" is one of their sweetest country numbers, though as usual the lyrics are ripe with ominous metaphor. And the next song seems to represent some sort of dead-end up ahead, on the freeway, just over the horizon, a "Plateau" where there's "nothin' at the top but a bucket and a mop, and an illustrated book about birds..." Spooky, but not really, a dirgey ballad that was made 'almost famous' by Nirvana on the MTV Unplugged show.
         Without missing a beat, "Plateau" segues into one of the best rock instrumentals of all time (including anything by The Shadows and The Ventures), "Aurora Borealis," a mysterio desert-funk number that basically teases you through its ever-circular chord changes. After these 5 songs you're thinking "Enough! It's great already! Just let me flip over the side!" But there's one more song, "We're Here," and whaddaya know, it's one of their very best songs ever, a lush quiet little dream-song, not a ballad really, because it's got this quiet but insistent backbeat to it.
         Okay, even if we don't need to, let's check out Side Two anyway (we'll save time and make it one paragraph): "Climb, climb, I always climb out of bed in the morning on a mountain made of sand and i know this doesn't rhyme but the clutter on the table has been getting out of hand …" is how it starts, which is...a motto for tackling another side, I suppose. "New Gods" (track two on side two) is the second raveup on here ("Split Myself In Two" was the first), though still strangely lazy thanks to this trio's particular lazy magic and Spot's lazily magical recording/production. The unassumingly titled "Oh Me" is a stone-cold classic, a song I wouldn't be afraid to call the Puppets' finest three minutes. The verses take a chill and loping path similar to "Plateau/Aurora Borealis," building into a triumphant chorus where C. Kirkwood exclaims "I can't see! the end of me! whole expanse I cannot see...I formulate infinity, and store it deep inside of me." Next is another song Nirvana almost made famous, "Lake of Fire," and it takes about 5 seconds for anyone to tell that the M. Pups version is superior. Where Nirvana seemed to make it an 'epic' 2:56 as a bouncy quasi-cool jazz number, the Pups somehow take a full minute off the running time by playing it as an even slower anguished fiery dirge. When Kirkwood laments that "I knew a lady who lived in Duluth / who was bit by a dog with a rabid tooth" it might be kinda cute and cuddly but when he follows it up with "but she went to her grave a little too soon / and she flew away howling at the yellow moon" it starts to get tense and ill all over again. (That cute/tense cuddly/ill dichotomy again.) The next song might ease you out of it: "I'm A Mindless Idiot", this album's third great instrumental, which seems to say that being an idiot and igoring the trauma, the 'lake of fire,' is indeed bliss, as the music is jaunty and 'uplifting' again, country-rock done sweet instead of anguished. After the mad loud hardcore mess of their self-titled debut, I don't know how the Puppets were so successful at consistently sounding sweet on this album, especially when their young acid punk agitation and dissipation can still be heard in the wasted vocals and lyrics.
        Despite or because of the agitation and dissipation, I love every single track on this album. The first one that might remotely be a step back is
the very last track, "The Whistling Song", with its undermotivated trad-jazz stylings. But by the time it's over, they've caught back up to speed, saved by a perfectly laid-back whistling solo and again, the Spot-engineered ambience that permeates the whole LP. Um, thumbs up?

A great Meat Puppets site

CHEAP TRICK: Heaven Tonight LP (EPIC)
Robin Zander had, and probably still has, one of the great rock and roll voices. He can invoke every generation of rock'n'roll and fully assimilate into his own rockin' present; the Elvis hiccup, the sweet Beatles croon, the coked-out Ziggy zombie (with a certain hollowness in his voice at times), and even an Iggy/Joey-worthy punk sneer. (Just check "Surrender," especially the Live at Budakon version.) Rick Neilsen writes what can only be called "killer hooks" after killer hook after killer hook. With Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos they rock these tunes out with one of the great rock band images, some sort of true cartoon-glam 'raw power' pop explosion.
        In Color (1977) was the album that brought this band image into superstardom (it started in Japan). On Heaven Tonight, their 1978 followup, it already sounds like they're pulling back a little, getting a little stranger. It has the original studio version of "Surrender," which sounds pretty vapid when you're so used to the rollicking Live at Budakon version we all know from mersh radio. (Same as In Color's studio version of the legendary "I Want You To Want Me".) But really, the whole album kind of has that airless late-seventies production (by Tom Werman, as on all but one of their first four studio albums) which combines with the often dark subject matter of the songs to make for a slightly unsettling pop-rock experience. Only slightly, but still noticeably more cynical and challenging than the hit-packed In Color.
       For example, side one closer "Auf Wiedersehen" means "goodbye" as in goodbye to your life, as in suicide, or homicide, or maybe it just means nihilism (goodbye to everything). Confusing matters is the fact that it's a great nervy punk song with about 3 or 4 separate great hooks. For another example, there's the title track (side two, cut three), a dirging ballad for which Zander invokes his most coked-out glam rock zombie ever, in fact singing about being coked-out, nearly monotone as he so slowly sings "downed...the line...couldn't get much....couldn't get much higher if you tried....and tried...don't go over....there's a went over..." Dark? Cynical? Challenging? Hell, it's terrifying. And the song is deathly beautiful, like Nico adapting the endless rideout of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)".
       Dark or not, there are a lot of great songs on here. Even when vapidly produced (whatever that might mean), you gotta love "Surrender," and the stunning "Auf Wiedersehen", and there's also the weirdly swaggering, exquisitely chorused "High Roller," the frantic/romantic "On Top Of The World" with its extended psych take on "Peter Gunn", and the heavy cover of The Move's "California Man" (for the record, I haven't heard the original). "Takin' Me Back (Long Time Ago)" has got tons of great hooks as well; in fact, a few too many, and the song ends up feeling overstuffed, and somewhat shrill and wearying. (See, it's even got two titles.) The kitschy "On The Radio" threatens to go down a similar path, but somehow remains charming, even during a faux radio announcer bit that could've come out of some theoretical late-period Eric Carmen song produced by Jim Steinman.
          I've already referred to the terrifying grandeur of the title track, but for the album's last two songs, something seems to slip a little. LP closer "How Are You?" is a weird one...a bouncy little trifle so clearly meant to cash in on In Color's "I Want You To Want Me" that the last verse even quotes said song only one year after its success! ("Remember?" asks Zander outright.) "Stiff Competition", the second-to-last song, is a rousingly anthemic big riff rocker. Zander and Nielsen do a nice bratty vocal harmony over the big-riff wall o'rock, but something seems to be a little detached, kinda hollow. Don't get me wrong, it's easily redeemed by the exquisite bridge-thing, a switch to baroque ballad mode, Zander intoning that he "looked hard in your was love at first took me're still waiting...waiting for your won't be long". Still, it winds its way back into the big-riff, as if by rote, and it remains strangely airless, like I'm starting to hear traces of the so-so late 80s Cheap Trick of Standing on the Edge and The Doctor, and even, in "How Are You?", the Cheap Trick that went down so easy to the masses with their cheesy cover version of "Don't Be Cruel", when Zander's Elvis hiccup was made too literal with too much kitsch simplicity. I dunno, Heaven Tonight is a weird one, a difficult but great but difficult pop rock album by a great pop rock band who were starting to show quirks/cracks/
growing pains.


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