Autobiographical Order No. 325: Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

There’s this thing that happens when, once you’re older than 30 or so, you start to notice that every band you like is younger than you. It’s a fact of life. The Hard Times even wrote an article about it, and the reason the Hard Times is so funny is because it’s real, like The New Yorker ripping off a Ziggy. I’m used to it now, but it was actually sort of weird for me for a brief moment in my early thirties. I actually interviewed Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings in the green room at Soda Bar (which, maybe doesn’t exist anymore? at the time it had a guestbook where Grimes left some neat sketches though) and he wasn’t quite old enough to be hanging out in the bar. That was weird.

But youth brings a lot to music that experience doesn’t. On one hand, the longer someone plays, the better they get. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for not having absorbed quite so much. Which isn’t to say that Cloud Nothings don’t display their influences, which they certainly do—Wipers, Husker Du, any number of post-hardcore bands from the ’90s. But it speaks to a certain youthful quality that they can pull off this intense, high-energy music so relentlessly.

Here and Nowhere Else may or may not be Cloud Nothings’ best album, but it definitely features their best song: “I’m Not Part of Me,” a hard-driving, catchy and explosive song that happens to speak directly to a certain self-examination as a young person. I probably would have LIVED on this song when I was in my early twenties. As it is, it’s still something I relate to now, even if it’s in the rearview.

When I bought this album, I had no idea the band did a promotion in which they wrote messages or drew pictures on the album covers, which is pretty fun. I picked up a copy at M Theory with the message “Tuna Melt Thompson and the Fat Tuesday Big Band” on the cover, and I had no idea what was going on. Apparently that’s added a bit of value to the record, since Baldi’s one-of-a-kind doodling is on it. There are other copies with fun drawings and stuff on them. I haven’t seen them all, but still, pretty neat.

Maybe it helps that they’re a little younger to come up with an idea like that. Maybe not. Still fun though.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

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Autobiographical Order No. 324: Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

I’ve never been the type of person that only listens to a narrow range of music. Certainly when I was a kid I had a small frame of reference, so I could only listen to what I knew, but by the time I was a teenager I was listening to everything from electronic and indie rock to hip-hop and soul. In college, that blew open even wider, and I discovered how much I actually loved whole worlds of music that I never knew existed, aided in part by the college radio station I DJed for and the career in music writing that I began around the time I was 18. Genres led to subgenres, styles bled into other styles, it became a whole big mess of music I learned to love.

Because I’m not a full-time DJ or obsessed with specific genres, at least not more so than is healthy to do (ha!), my record collection is pretty all over the place, and anyone who’s been following this blog for a while should have figured that out. But there’s still a few styles that at times feel like they’re underrepresented. I don’t have that many country/folk albums, for instance, and I often feel as if my electronic music collection could be expanded a bit.

At one time I felt that way about hip-hop, though it wasn’t necessarily because I didn’t listen to a lot of hip-hop. Sometimes albums just weren’t available. And some records I’ve been hesitant to pick up because I’ve heard bad things about the pressings. (I’m told that existing pressings of 36 Chambers leave something to be desired, and I’m well past the point of taking risks on spotty pressings.)

I have quite a few rap records on vinyl now, but included in that batch is Shabazz Palaces, a group that’s ostensibly hip-hop, but only by the loosest definition. The duo features Ishmael of Digable Planets—a personal favorite of mine, particularly their amazing 1994 album Blowout Comb—so they have some classic rap bona fides. But the music itself is spacey and spacious, not short on bangers by any means, but long on experimentation and overall weirdness. Naturally, it’s the kind of thing I can’t get enough of.

I should have more Shabazz Palaces records, because they’re great and fun to listen to, and they allow me to hear music in a different, strange way. But one thing is certain: This is the only album of its kind in my collection.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 323: Magazine – Real Life

I love a good guitar riff. That’s in large part because I play guitar—I love playing a good riff, and I love trying to come up with one, and frankly, it’s the most fun part of doing it. When you start ripping through a good riff, you’re having a blast. And if anyone’s listening to you, they probably are too. But I also love listening to a good riff. It’s not everything, of course, but if a song has a killer riff, I’ll probably like it. I mean, anyone who read my entry on Blue Oyster Cult earlier this year probably already know that.

My favorite riffs aren’t generally part of the classic rock canon though. Some of them are, and several hundred entries from here, I’m going to get into some seriously dorky stuff about some mainstream rock records from the ’70s and ’80s that make me go from zero to Dad Rock in mere seconds. But I love the darker, more abrasive, weirdo art records most, of course, and to my ears there are few guitar riffs better than Magazine’s “Shot by Both Sides.”

There’s nothing super complicated about the song—it’s three-chord post-punk, with a lot of urgency and intensity. And the riff itself is basically just an ascending scale with the right amount of tension and suspense thrown in. But that’s kind of the secret of great songwriting. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to do something simple in an interesting way. And every time I hear this song, I feel like sprinting or jumping or punching things, and it feels great.

Radiohead agrees, in fact. When they wrote their 1995 song “Just,” from The Bends, which has a similar melodic motif, they admitted that they were inspired by “Shot by Both Sides,” and they’ve even covered the song live. I’m not saying that everything Radiohead does is necessarily unimpeachable, but that’s a damn good start right there.

It’s not the only song on the album that’s great, nor is it even the first from Magazine that I had heard (that’d be the decidedly more goth “The Light Pours Out of Me”). And in DJ sets or in mixtapes, I like to drop in “Definitive Gaze” a lot, because it’s so damn funky. The combination of all these classics made Real Life one of those albums that, even back in my early vinyl collecting days, I always hoped I’d find in a used bin. Of course I never did, but it was always on the list regardless.

Finally, in fall of 2014, I said “fuck it” and just ordered a used copy online. Well worth it. And now the riffs are always there to be played again when I need them.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 322: Wire – Chairs Missing

If I were to be asked what my favorite band is, I’m not sure I’d have a ready to go answer. Sleater-Kinney is certainly up there, as is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, however often the lineup changes. Baroness and Savages are two more recent favorites, and there are plenty of groups whose catalog is pretty much nothing but hits as far as I’m concerned (hits in the sense of being awesome, not necessarily commercially successful).

Wire’s definitely in the running though. And if I’m being honest they’re pretty far ahead of most bands. They’re my second-most listened-to band on Last.fm, just behind David Bowie, and much like Paul Westerberg and Big Star, I never go too far without a little, uh, Wire. I’ve written about them a lot, having interviewed singer Colin Newman not that long ago, and I put together a feature on their catalog for Stereogum. So I’ve done some homework on Wire. Plus, someone once commented that anytime Treble runs a list, there’s a good possibility Wire’s going to be on it, and he’s not wrong.

BUT, my greatest admiration for the band applies to their first three albums: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. At a certain point I made it a goal of mine to track down all three on vinyl, and as of this moment I have one copy each of two of them, and two copies of another, which is a story for another time. After tracking down 154, which was the easiest to find, I ended up buying Chairs Missing. I paid a little bit more for that one, but with good reason: It’s one of my all time favorite records, something that’s shaped my taste and perspective on music. It’s one of the greatest post-punk albums ever recorded, so weird and diverse and experimental and fun and sometimes kinda scary and ominous. It’s genius. Genius!

But there’s also been few reissues in the past decade that didn’t suck. Until Wire, themselves, reissued the first three records on their own Pink Flag label this year. SO, I could have waited four years and I would have been set. But what I have is arguably cooler, since there are probably fewer folks in the states with original copies of the album. Which I have. (And it’s worth something in the ballpark of $40, apparently.)

It’s the kind of album that’s worth having an old copy of, if you can find it. Not that it’s crucial anymore. Still, a fairly hard-to-find masterpiece for a reasonable price is one you don’t let go. And I wouldn’t be that eager with just any band—chalk that up to being an all-time favorite.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 321: Future Islands – On the Water

Nobody’s bothered to study it, and there’s probably little value to be gleaned from knowing such a thing, but in my experience, people tend to cling most closely to the first album they’ve heard from an artist they like. It’s not an absolute; Metallica fans who heard the Black Album first still probably prefer Master of Puppets, and nobody’s favorite Radiohead album is Pablo Honey (and if it is they’re trolling you), but it holds true more often than not.

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone. A lot of my favorite albums from my favorite bands aren’t the big ones or the consensus picks, but rather the ones that got me into them. Take Future Islands for example. Their big next-level moment came with 2014’s Singles, an album I own and love. But it’s not my favorite. No, that would be On the Water, their 2011 album that I first heard as a promo, without much prior knowledge or context going into it. And by the time I heard singer Sam Herring bellow his heroic lyrics, I was immediately captivated. It was such an odd combination—new wavey synths and this over-the-top crooner—but it worked. Man did it work.

The next year, I saw them perform at FYF Fest, and that only solidified my admiration for them. At first they seemed unassuming—Herring was making some jokes about baseball and the band looked pretty normal in the scheme of things, around 4 in the afternoon in an LA park. Then the music started and that all changed. They opened with “Give Us the Wind,” which to this day remains my favorite Future Islands song, and it was easily one of the most intense things we saw all weekend, and that included Refused and Converge.

I can’t say that the band’s next two albums were inferior or anything. Everything Future Islands does is great! But this one is still my favorite, possibly for sentimental reasons, possibly because the songs just hit me a little harder. I don’t question it, I just never lose my affection for it.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 320: Gang of Four – Entertainment!

Record collector types tend to romanticize things that don’t really happen anymore, like buying something based on the cover art alone. Don’t get me wrong: I find that concept appealing in the abstract—imagine an LP cover so cool that you just can’t leave without it! I’m imagining most people won’t do that, however, and if they do, it’s not done completely devoid of context.

I will say this, though: A great deal of my music collection past and present was acquired without actually having heard the albums first. I still do, sometimes. But there’s a good chance I know about the artist, or the album’s reputation, or something to that effect—I very rarely buy something without knowing anything about it.

Gang of Four is one such band I discovered entirely through reading about them when I was a teenager. They were a good decade past having broken up and their music still somewhat obscure in the scheme of things; nobody was really releasing anything that sounded like Gang of Four in the ’90s (although some early Modest Mouse has elements of Andy Gill guitar scratch, strangely enough). But Henry Rollins briefly curated a reissue label called “Infinite Zero” that actually got a lot of really awesome stuff back in print: The Contortions, Monks, Flipper, Devo, Trouble Funk, Tom Verlaine and Alan Vega to name a handful of the artists on the roster. Gang of Four was also one of them, and for a time this was the avenue through which Entertainment!, their landmark debut album, was available in record stores.

Bear in mind, though, that Napster and Spotify didn’t exist, so if I wanted to hear something, I pretty much had to buy it. And so curiosity got the best of me; I found a used copy for $7 at the Wherehouse in Temecula (of all places) and had my first taste of Gang of Four. And that first listen was more confusing than anything; songs like “Ether” and “Natural’s Not In It” grooved, but seemed to do so in spite of the band’s efforts. It was so abrasive and weird. And yet by the time “Damaged Goods” started playing, I was convinced this band was for me.

The liner notes featured some testimonials from bands Gang of Four influenced, including Flea, who used the opportunity to talk trash on U2. Which is weird—when you’re in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you’re in the most fragile of glass houses. (Also if they were influenced by Gang of Four…well, they’re doing it wrong.) But I couldn’t help but notice a lot of elements that were put into practice by other bands. Visually and marketing wise, Rage Against the Machine borrowed a lot of tricks from Gang of Four, even if they sound nothing like them, for instance.

It took a long time before I ended up picking this back up on vinyl, not for any good reason. And my Gang of Four LP collection has been acquired out of order. (I got Songs of the Free first, which is usually not the recommended avenue, but all of their first three albums pretty much rule.)

So, it’s not like I saw the cover of Entertainment! and thought “I’m taking this baby home!” But I took a chance. Still, I hope someone else does and has their mind blown.

Rating: 10.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 319: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane – s/t

Most of the music I love, with certain exceptions like Depeche Mode, is the kind of thing that I don’t expect everyone else to love. I advocate for all the music I like, I’m always trying to turn new people onto things that impress me, and when I have an artist’s back, I’ll shout it to the rafters. But I also have weird tastes, and things resonate with me that don’t always work for everybody else. And that’s cool. I’m not only fine with that, I welcome it to a certain degree, for a couple reasons: 1. Most things that everybody likes tend to not feel special, or inversely, are hard to love because there’s often not much subtlety or layers to unravel; and 2. The people that do tend to like the weird things I do end up becoming good friends of mine, and bonds are formed over this strange piece of obscure or difficult art. (That’s an exaggeration, but you get what I’m saying.)

Jazz tends to be one of those things that doesn’t appeal to everyone. Certainly, I know a lot of people who dig Miles or Herbie, but it gets harder to win some listeners over with the far-out blasts of peak Pharoah or the more-abrasive-than-black-metal free jazz of Peter Brotzmann (even for me that’s a very occasional listen).  But getting into jazz doesn’t mean listening to Ascension or weirder Sun Ra records without preparation. No, you start with something that resonates with you first. Maybe it’s Kind of Blue. Maybe it’s even Herb Alpert. I said before that In A Silent Way was one of those albums that changed everything for me. But I can also credit a record that put two giants together in one session: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

Specifically, their iconic song “In a Sentimental Mood” is what hit me. It’s a beautiful song, highly melodic and structural in a way that a lot of jazz, particularly deeper into the ’60s, wasn’t. And the two musicians and bandleaders give stellar performances, but do so in a more subtle manner than expected. They serve the song, which isn’t the antithesis of jazz, but it’s rarely observed in such a way.

That led to me picking up the album (or downloading, who even knows anymore) when I was in college, and for that matter delving further into both artists’ catalogs. And 14 or so years later I finally picked this fantastic record up at a used record swap. It’s the kind of album that can make someone else love jazz like it did for me, though I can’t speak for how people hear or respond to music. But it’s a good album, anchored by one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Good/Great