Autobiographical Order No. 405: Zola Jesus – Stridulum

There’s not really a difference between buying records as someone who likes listening to a lot of records and buying records as someone who intends to play them at DJ gigs. There is, I suppose, if you’re willing to spend money on records you don’t like for the sole purpose of pleasing the crowd. (Which I mostly didn’t do, though there might be an exception or two.) But then again vinyl DJing isn’t so much about giving the people what they want all the time—having to lug all those records around will definitely make you rethink how much you’re willing to carry to a gig. (Sorry everybody who asked for And1 or whatever.)

But in my endless record binge of 2015 (it’s still going and it’s not even 2015 anymore!) I picked up as much contemporary dark music as I could, the more beat-friendly and danceable the better, simply because I didn’t really like the idea of playing the same standards over and over again every week. But I also kind of figured that most good goths kept up with newer bands anyway. And in the past decade, there have been tons of great new darkwave and post-punk acts out there, from Cold Cave to Chelsea Wolfe. And the first record that brought that to my attention was Zola Jesus’ Stridulum.

It’s a fairly brief EP, only six songs and less than 20 minutes long, but it’s huge in sound, with massive gothic synthesizers and Zola Jesus’ own voice, which positively booms. And that’s pretty impressive since she’s tiny. You almost don’t expect it, but then again Abraham Lincoln was a tall dude and supposedly had a nasal, reedy voice, so it never works out how you think it does.

Stridulum contains a number of great songs, like the single “Night,” which didn’t become an underground hit as far as I know but certainly warrants it. But my favorite is the title track, an epic and anthemic piece of towering darkwave that I’ve put on my ongoing list of songs I’d love to cover someday. I remember seeing the artwork long before I ever listened to it and thinking it must have been some scuzzy garage punk band or a noise artist—I mean, what else comes to mind when you see someone’s face being slimed with syrup? Of course that was wrong, but still, what a weird and compelling cover photo.

She’s also an excellent live performer. The first time I saw her live was at a SXSW party put on by Sacred Bones and Stereogum—the same one where I saw Cult of Youth—and Zola was headlining. It was super late, everyone was exhausted, and there were sound problems throughout the evening. In fact, the second-to-last band Trust (now Tr/st), put on one of the most disastrous performances I’ve ever seen. I understand the frustrations with bad sound, I really do. But I also think if you’re at this stage of your career, playing in front of this many people, just before a pretty high profile headliner, you should find a way to get through the set without stopping every song after the first verse and yelling at the sound guy. To be honest, it soured me on ever getting into their music.

Meanwhile, Zola briefly acknowledged the sound issues and then just got on with it, performing a great set that found her breaking the fourth wall, crawling on top of pretty much everything and spending as little time just standing on stage as possible. She’s not the only Sacred Bones artist I’ve seen do that, but it was a pretty damn fun way to end a night in Austin. I’m tempted to say that she saved the evening, though that seems pretty dramatic. She definitely brought it back up after it started going south, though.

I can’t really remember if anybody was into “Night” or “Stridulum” when I played them at St. Vitus Dance Party. I also kind of don’t care. Sometimes you have to play something for yourself, you know?

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 404: Virgin Prunes – …If I Die, I Die

In the post-punk canon, there are a fair amount of bands that everyone knows: The Cure, Joy Division, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, etc. And when I say everyone, I mean people in general that have an interest in underground music, though by this point The Cure and Joy Division definitely are well above ground in terms of name recognition (I watched The Cure with 50,000 other people recently, so yeah, they’ve pretty much been out of that niche for a long time). But in my fairly recent quest to post-punkify my record collection as much as I possibly could without bidding on $150 pressings, I grew even greater interest in finding the under-the-radar cult favorites. And one band I’ve found that never quite got the acclaim they warranted is The Virgin Prunes.

The Prunes were an Irish band, fronted by Gavin Friday, friend to Bono but clearly not as famous. The first place I heard them was on a mixtape—not one given to me, but one that belonged to my wife when she was in college. And she got it sort of accidentally through a friend. The story, as I recall, is her non-goth friend’s goth sister made the tape for little sis, but being non-goth, she wasn’t into it. And thus it got passed along. I think the song she included was “Baby Turns Blue,” which is a good one—accessible, punchy, but still showcasing Friday’s theatrics and the group’s overall eerie drama.

Many years later I listened to the full album and came to realize that this band, whom I once considered a niche darkwave interest, created something much cooler than I realized. Not that I didn’t like “Baby Turns Blue,” but there’s a strange, almost psychedelic mysticism to the album that goes beyond the crowd-pleasers. Opening track “Ulakanakulot” (say that three times fast!) is an entrance into the band’s weird, hallucinogenic goth world, while the closing track, “Theme for Thought,” is an utterly creepy piece of post-punk brilliance. It was on one of my annual fall megamixxes (read: Halloween) in recent years, and it remains one of the most unsettling songs I’ve ever heard. Which, naturally, means I love it.

I did make a mistake when ordering this album on Discogs, though—I didn’t realize that the band’s standout single “Pagan Love Song” isn’t on it. That was added on subsequent reissues, but as was the case with many bands in the ’70s and ’80s, the single and the album were two separate things. So yeah, I had to buy the 7-inch immediately afterwards. And now I have both, and my post-punk record collection is even better for it.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 403: Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

There are events in your life, sometimes which involve hearing songs for the first time, where you know where you were and the emotions that you felt when you experienced them. People often point to the moon landing or Nixon’s resignation or the Kennedy assassination, but I assure you I’m not that old. I’ve certainly lived long enough to have enough of those moments (Obama’s election, September 11th, etc. etc.), but I probably have a better memory than most of where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard many of my favorite songs for the first time. But even more than that, I remember what it felt like to hear that song.

I couldn’t tell you where I was the first time I heard “Head Like a Hole,” to be honest. I think I was in a car. Maybe I was at home and heard it from one of my brothers. But what I can tell you is that it was exciting. Angry. Intense. Loud. But also kind of futuristic and foreign. I also remember seeing the Nine Inch Nails logo with the symmetrical Ns, and thinking it was the coolest band logo I’d ever seen. It instilled a curiosity that led to me wanting to pick up the 1992 EP Broken on cassette and my parents having reservations about it. I was, after all, pretty young. And Trent Reznor was making harsh, profane music about sex and depression and pain, and what did I know about any of that? Nothing, of course. But it sounded cool.

Pretty Hate Machine—which I just realized turns 30 this year(!)—is one of the most important albums in industrial music. Maybe even the most important album, as it introduced the niche genre to a mainstream audience. Nine Inch Nails got big fairly quickly—played on MTV in the daytime big. Blowing people’s minds at Lollapalooza (when it was still a unique, cool thing) big. Of course, by this point, industrial music as a concept, had been around for a long time. Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire, Foetus and Coil had all been releasing music for some time, and some of it even arching toward a broader audience (Ministry in particular had a sizable following by the time Nine Inch Nails came around). But this was different—it was pop music, but made under the guise of harsh, dystopian machine music.

Naturally it was an awkward fit at first; when I wrote an anniversary piece on The Downward Spiral earlier this year, I read about how when Nine Inch Nails played at Lollapalooza, people were drawn to the aggression. But metal and grunge fans were turned off by all the synths on Pretty Hate Machine and didn’t know what to make of it.

At the time my undercooked brain was still unaffected by scenes and peer pressure and cred and all that, so that didn’t really make much of a difference to me, but the heavier Nine Inch Nails got, I just kept following them.

Looking back now, “Head Like A Hole” actually ranks more toward the middle in terms of my favorite songs on the album (or by Reznor in general). “Terrible Lie” remains my favorite, in part because of how eerie and atmospheric the chorus is—an entryway into goth before I even realized it. But this album holds up well for me. Reznor himself would probably tell you he wouldn’t relate to these songs anymore—they’re very specifically about a young person’s kind of angst. (And “That’s What I Get” is peculiarly naive in the context of everything else here.) But this is an impeccably crafted album, and one that works great in the context of a dancefloor.

I had a lot more moments of hearing songs by this very band for the first time and being floored (then in the ’00s, a few shrugs), but “Head Like A Hole” was a hell of a gateway.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Good/Great

Autobiographical Order No. 402: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Your Funeral…My Trial

So I’m in a band. There are only two of us—me, a guitarist and vocalist, and my wife, who plays drums. Having only two people in the band creates some logistical challenges, which primarily stem from the fact that we don’t have a bass player (pedals and extra amps make up for that), and it kind of forces me to write guitar parts that sound like a combination of bass and guitar, which is actually kind of fun and leads to a different way of thinking about writing music. But having only two of us in the band also makes it easier in a lot of ways, because we don’t have to schedule around anyone else, we can practice at home, and we make our own specific rules. One is that nothing passes muster unless we’re both satisfied with it. Another is that we should always ask if something could sound more like Nick Cave.

The latter isn’t so much a rule as a philosophy, and everyone else tells us that we sound like The Cramps. So apparently we’re not doing that good of a job? But you know, you have to set goals for yourself. The thing is we’re actually quite a bit different than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in terms of how we do, well, everything. There’s a lot of people in that band, for one. And second, Nick is an artist. Heavy emphasis. He writes his lyrics at a desk in an office. (Wait, that actually doesn’t sound very artist-like, but you get my drift.) I like to make noise. He’s a craftsman.

Then there’s the other thing—Nick Cave seems to have a very different perspective on his own songwriting. He recently wrote something on his website about how his relationship with PJ Harvey led to a change in the way he writes songs—with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, he transitioned into a more emotionally direct and honest style of writing, shifting away from some of the grotesque character studies of past albums (though he’s done plenty of those since then, to be sure). And that’s a great album, certainly. Though he also once said that he doesn’t consider “The Mercy Seat” one of his best songs, even though it’s a fan favorite and he plays it live more than most other songs in his catalog. If you were to ask me, however, I’d say “The Mercy Seat” is one of his top three tracks. That whole album is brilliant.

There isn’t a Cave album I don’t like, but I generally lean more toward his abrasive post-punk stuff than his ballads. To wit: Your Funeral…My Trial is one of his absolute best albums, though the irony is it begins with a ballad. That being said, it’s one of his more diverse albums. “The Carny” is a harrowing scary-story song that’s a must for any Halloween playlist, “Stranger Than Kindness” is stunning punk blues (written by Anita Lane), and “Jack’s Shadow” sounds like an even more mangled version of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” as covered on From Her to Eternity. Everything here is a highlight.

Recently I got bored and challenged people on social media to name an artist and I’d rank all of their albums. What happened was a flood of more than 100 requests, and I couldn’t meet them all. Eventually I had to stop. But the last one I did was Nick Cave, and this album ended up as my number three. That surprised even me a little bit, though it does seem right now that I think about it. Your Funeral is one of his best for sure, though I rarely find two people who agree on all of his records. (Some people hate Henry’s Dream, some people think Murder Ballads is his best, etc.)

Considering how well Cave has evolved and aged as an artist, up to his heartbreaking 2016 album Skeleton Tree, I think his changes as a songwriter have served him well. But I’ll still celebrate his gothic horror stories and bruising post-punk arrangements above all.

Rating: 9.4

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 401: Cult of Youth – Final Days

I love listening to music, and I love going to see live music, but I’m not the biggest fan of music festivals. I realize there’s some irony in me saying this just days before going to a festival—which I’m very excited about! But back in 2004, attending Coachella cured me of any romance about the idea. It’s cool to see a bunch of bands you like in one place, but the hassle sometimes outweighs the benefit, and the search to find your car in the parking lot afterward will swear you off the whole thing altogether.

But I’ve still been to a lot of festivals—one Coachella, two Street Scenes, three San Diego Music Things, four FYF Fests, one “SoCo Live Experience” or whatever that was called, and as of this weekend, one Pasadena Daydream. But I’ve also been to several SXSWs, which is considerably different than the typical sweating-in-a-field festival. Basically, the whole city of Austin is overrun with people who want to see bands who want to get signed, and there’s a lot about it that’s frustrating. Want to take a cab somewhere? Good luck. But you also get the chance to see 50 bands in five days or however you want to go about it, so that’s kind of neat. And I’ve seen a lot of cool bands at SXSW. And some crap. But the good stuff won out, usually.

In 2011, I spent several chunks of one day at a Stereogum/Sacred Bones showcase to see several up-and-coming goth-ish bands (and Liturgy) at a dive called Beerland. There was a more DIY feel about this show than most of the others throughout the week—sound snafus, things being generally duct taped together, Liturgy borrowed a flashlight from us, for instance. But there were still some fun sets, like Zola Jesus. And some bad sets, like Trust. And one that sort of surprised me: Cult of Youth. At the time I thought they sort of seemed like Evil Pogues, with sunglasses on indoors, some sinister sounding folky post-punk with a bit of a jig in their step. I was into it.

It wasn’t until several years later that I actually picked up any of their records, though, and seeing this used at M Theory prompted me to bring it home. It’s actually a really stellar post-punk record, despite the fact that they’ve generally been referred to as “neofolk,” which is by and large a pretty bullshit genre. Most of it’s boring, some of it’s fascist (and interviewers always ask Cult of Youth about this, which is sort of lazy, though I guess if you’ve ever listened to Death In June, be prepared to have a statement ready), and you know, it’s called “neofolk.” This album, while definitely dark and spooky and featuring lots of acoustic guitars, sounds more like Love and Rockets mixed with Swans or something. The songs are actually fun to listen to, and Sean Ragon, the band’s frontman, has said he actually intends to make music that’s uplifting rather than confrontational. Despite, you know, the fact that this album is about the apocalypse. That’s the Tower of Babel on the cover, you might have noticed.

Had I not seen a few minutes of their set at a festival, though, maybe I never would have sought them out, and I never would have played a handful of their songs for a goth night crowd that absolutely didn’t give a shit. But whatever, I still like this album.

Rating: 8.9

Sound Quality: Great

 

Autobiographical Order: Nos. 301-400

Another 100 down! Here’s the rundown for those who missed ’em.

301. Peter Gabriel’s s/t and discovering music through covers

302. Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind and the power of a great metal song

303. Madvillain’s Madvillainy and learning about music in the best place—a record store

304. Fad Gadget’s Gag and having your assumptions challenged

305. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and why they call him The Boss

306. Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight and grocery store standards

307. Duran Duran’s s/t and where it gets a little fuzzy

308. Kool and the Gang’s Ladies Night and the long search to find a song’s name

309. The Cure’s Pornography and completing the (close-to-flawless) discography

310. Crystal Castles’ II and what to do with problematic artists

311. Sparks’ No. 1 in Heaven and disco revelations

312. Mercyful Fate’s Melissa and metal that not everybody can get into

313. Throbbing Gristle’s Greatest Hits and “entertainment through pain”

314. David Bowie’s Low, and whether or not an underrated Bowie album is a real thing

315. Mastodon’s Blood Mountain and sometimes the order breaks down

316. Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak and meme rock (unfortunately)

317. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and why its reputation is earned

318. Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and records that are 20 years older than I am

319. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and jazz that’s maybe for everybody

320. Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and picking up records without hearing them first

321. Future Islands’ On the Water and why your favorite is sometimes the first one you heard

322. Wire’s Chairs Missing and figuring out my favorite band

323. Magazine’s Real Life and the thrill of a great riff

324. Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty and truly unique records

325. Cloud Nothings’ Here and Nowhere Else and why is everyone so young

326. Slint’s Spiderland and that weird Gilmore Girls scene

327. Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden and why doom metal is perfect for vinyl

328. The Saints’ Eternally Yours and being immediately struck by that song

329. Giorgio Moroder’s From Here to Eternity and seeking to fill the gaps

330. Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban and getting to know the music of the ’50s

331. Speedy Ortiz’s Major Arcana and losing my indie patience

332. Can’s Tago Mago and recognizing your nerdiness

333. Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast and being halfway to the beast

334. Ought’s More Than Any Other Day, hype and unfair backlash

335. Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain and beautiful music from an artist gone too soon

336. Wilco’s summerteeth and the sound of ending high school

337. Blur’s Blur and remembering your first Blur album

338. Restorations’ LP3 and albums everyone should hear but definitely haven’t

339. The Jam’s In the City and punk education

340. Devo’s Freedom of Choice and first memories of music videos

341. Caribou’s Our Love and streaks that are better than most

342. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ From Her to Eternity and one of my favorite moments on any record

343. Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and going through phases

344. The Birthday Party’s Junkyard and being drawn to an album’s rawness and intensity

345. Death Cab for Cutie’s We Have the Facts and being emo in college

346. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and personal superstitions

347. Grant Green’s Idle Moments and jazz for kickin’ back

348. New Order’s Low Life and everyone’s got their favorites

349. Love’s Forever Changes and diving into music of past generations

350. Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary and beginning a movement (sort of)

351. Baroness’ Red Album and a long personal journey into metal

352. Run the Jewels’ RTJ2 and records that don’t hold back.

353. Spoon’s Girls Can Tell and indie rock that doesn’t lose its flavor

354. Fugazi’s The Argument and cringeworthy quotes from politicians

355. Chavez’s Ride the Fader and willing vinyl into existence

356. Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love and being excited for a reunion

357. The Beatles’ White Album and inviting hyperbole

358. Led Zeppelin’s IV and starting to prefer the deepest cuts

359. Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart… and a New York winter

360. Jessica Pratt’s On Your Own Love Again and perfect winter albums

361. Outkast’s Aquemini and cranking it up after a bike ride home

362. Duran Duran’s Rio and underestimating a pop group

363. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and albums you need

364. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and learning to get Dylan

365. Cerrone’s Supernature and discovering space disco

366. A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and records that made me love hip-hop

367. The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys and vivid memories of its sleeve art

368. Eno/Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and records you’ve heard of, even if you haven’t heard them

369. Converge’s Axe to Fall and breaking a rut

370. The Cars’ s/t and monoculture

371. Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and music that brings joy

372 & 373. Nick Cave’s Let Love In and Tender Prey and artists who are always changing, challenging

374. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and mandatory records

375. Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and owning my dad rock affinity

376. Miles Davis’ On the Corner and infamous LPs

377. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Henry’s Dream and the hardest song I ever memorized

378 & 379. Broadcast’s Tender Buttons and The Noise Made by People and the rare pleasure of sharing a fondness for this band with someone else

380. Al Green’s I’m Still in Love With You and a simple rule for buying Al Green records

381. Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit… and short-term obsessions

382. The Sound’s From the Lion’s Mouth and leaning on friends’ recommendations

383. The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland and launching a goth night

384. Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview and how good writing makes you want to hear music

386. Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information and my college radio days

387. The Police’s Reggatta de Blanc and “White Reggae”

388. Broadcast’s Future Crayon and bands with the best b-sides

389. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and deep dives and obsessions

390 & 391. Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Expensive Shit and why I know I’m in the right place when I hear these

392. Big Star’s Radio City and being introduced to one of the greatest bands

393. Tribulation’s The Children of the Night and why I enjoy being a metalhead

394. Gun Club’s Fire of Love and learning to love blues

395. The Sound’s Jeopardy and seeking to build the best post-punk collection in the west

396. Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the goth table

397. Speedy Ortiz’s Foil Deer, indie rock and getting older

398. Metz’s II and why you gotta pick up the coolest looking version sometimes

399. True Widow’s Circumambulation and why nobody does what they do

400. The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk, saxophones and new wave summers

Autobiographical Order No. 400: The Psychedelic Furs – Talk Talk Talk

Woo-hoo!

*hyperventilating*

I made it to 400! And I’m just stupid enough to keep on going, despite the fact that I’m not even halfway done and am already so busy and so very tired. But I’ve been having fun writing about the Records Of My Life so far, and it’s something I do pretty much for my own sake, though it makes me happy if people enjoy it. So I hope you do. Incidentally, over the weekend I got a new phone (notice how much better resolution the photo is), and had all of my old photos transferred over to the new one. My wife said, “You really don’t have to keep all of those record photos.” She’s right, but I’m actually pretty lazy about deleting things. So anyway…

On to the next record! By now I’ve established how much I like the Psychedelic Furs—specifically their first four albums. And canon pretty much dictates that Talk Talk Talk is their best. I don’t disagree with that. It’s pretty close to perfection. And it also has one of their biggest hits, “Pretty In Pink,” which became an even bigger hit when it was re-released in conjunction with John Hughes’ movie of the same name (with saxophone, even).

And for a while, that’s all I really knew. That and a few other hits—”Love My Way” and “The Ghost In You,” specifically. But in high school I developed this pattern where during the school year I’d be pretty diligent in keeping up with new music, but during summer break I’d mostly listen to music from the ’80s and ’70s. One year it was mostly The Clash and The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode. And somewhere in there my list finally got me around to The Psychedelic Furs. And I gotta say, Talk Talk Talk was a lot different than I expected. “Pretty In Pink” meant I had them pegged as a pop group, but they proved to be a more urgent, sometimes abrasive post-punk band. “All of This and Nothing” is easily one of their best songs and “Dumb Waiters” is skronky on a level I never imagined. It might just be where I developed my love for fucked-up sounding saxophones.

I can’t say for sure why summer break always meant a step into the past. Maybe it was nostalgia—listening to music released when I was a kid, or before I was born for that matter, might have reminded me of listening to mixtapes on vacations as a kid. Or maybe it was that discovering new music somehow brought me full circle to revisiting the classics, the almost-classics and the cult faves. All I know is that sometimes albums are considered the best for a reason. It’s the saxophones, naturally.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great