Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Grafted-on Skin

one of the things that makes Skin Graft one the truly great American indie labels, instead of a label that just happens to have released a lot of great records over the years, is that it has shown intense loyalty to its artists. to pick one example, in the mid-to-late '90s, label honcho Mark Fischer was intensely generous toward a certain nexus of musicians that included Thymme Jones, drummer of and general mastermind behind Cheer-Accident; Darin Gray, bassist of Dazzling Killmen and later On Fillmore, Grand Ulena and tons more; and Jim O' Rourke, who everyone knows from Gastr del Sol, Sonic Youth and innumerable engineering/arrangement type projects.

in addition to issuing several records apiece by Cheer-Accident and the Killmen--which were, respectively, Jones and Gray's more straightforward and, one assumes, "marketable" projects--he put out, by my count, five tangential releases including this tandem: three by You Fantastic!, which also included Killmen guitarist Tim Garrigan; one by Brise-Glace (not counting a 7"), which teamed these two with O'Rourke and sundry other weirdos; and one by Yona-Kit, which was Jones, Gray, O'Rourke and Japanese madman K.K. Null on guitar and vox. quite honestly, this music is all pretty difficult, and in a certain sense, spotty. i would never recommend that anyone listen to these bands before hearing Cheer-Accident and the Killmen, both of whom are in my all-time-favorite pantheon.

i've been spending some time with these "secondary" projects over the last few days, though, and i'm remembering that they're all very much worthwhile, even if i find them most effective as supplements or corollarys or departures or what-have-you.

You Fantastic! seems to be largely Jones's baby. i say this because this band's music shares with Cheer-Accident a fundamental instability--the notion that anything resembling a conventional song structure is merely a kind of trap door that will probably open underneath you as soon as you start to get comfortable. listen to just about any Cheer-Accident record and you'll see what i mean; the albums are full of slow fades where one texture starts in the background and overwhelms another, abrupt jumpcuts and bizarre, frankly sometimes annoying juxtapositions.

this is all part of the perverse pleasure of listening to Cheer-Accident. you just have to get over the idea that they're going to push your pleasure buttons all the time and dig a sound mass like "Vacuum," wherein the wheezing of the titular item makes up the main instrumental texture, right alongside a eventful prog-pop tune like "Learning How to Fly."

anyway, so You Fantastic! is, if anything, more ornery and difficult and less pleasurable to listen to. i know this doesn't sound like much of a recommendation, but the music has a real humor and tension that makes it worth the trouble. i saw the band play live about a decade ago in K.C. and while i have very little recollection of the actual sound, i know for sure that there was little or no electronic or conceptual soundfuckery going on. in other words, the band was, as i recall, a trio playing most likely proggy instrumental music in the vein of "Not a Food"-era Cheer-Accident.

this style evidences itself on the records. on the band's sole full-length, "Homesickness," you can hear the band pounding it out on some very lo-fi live recordings, but these are more often than not overwhelmed by weird-ass conceptual material that, once you get over the frustration of not being able to just listen to this trio of badasses lay it down--which admittedly is a fairly big hurdle--is actually really entertaining. there's a great track that consists almost entirely of Gray's recorded instructions to the other band members as to how to play a particular song--they were geographically separated at the time. he talks about he's going to play "A" five times, into "B" and "C" and so forth, and at one point, he talks about going into a part he calls "The Groove Section." except every time he says he's going to start playing, all you hear is this sped-up and garbled mess of bass sound.

i interviewed Darin a while back for a Signal to Noise piece and according to him, this is all real. i.e., he sent Thymme a tape so he could learn some parts, but the tape turned out all fucked up. and instead of ditching it, Thymme just put the damn thing on the record. kind of crazy. Darin said he was wary of it going on "Homesickness" at first but that later he got into the idea; in fact, it illustrates this concept of "failure" that is sort of the overarching aesthetic behind his later band Grand Ulena.

aaaaanyway, so there's a lot of that weird collagey sort of stuff, alongside some of this sort of driving, menacing, minimal prog rock that fans of these musicians will recognize instantly from having heard their other stuff, plus some beautiful, soundtrackish trumpet-driven stuff. but the music always seems secondary to the concept.

the other two You Fantastic! discs are EPs, and they're quizzical as shit. appropriately, the first one is called "The Riddler." i rememember buying this one after the gig i saw in the '90s and being like, "What is this shit?" and selling it a few days later. i subsequently reacquired it while researching my piece on Darin, and though i don't take it out all that often, it's a cool thing to have around.

essentially, it's a sort of condensed version of what you hear on "Homesickness." a really cool section is the opening, which features a key Jones trick--a distorted, driving, odd-time (at least i think it's odd-time) drumbeat, looped really loud so that it sounds like an advancing robot army or some such. on the record, the beat cuts away to these weird discordant guitar and bass strums, which gradually become lower- and lower-fi. if you know You Fantastic!, this kind of jarring unpredictability is in itself predictable, but it's cool to listen to nonetheless.

if anyone out there is familiar with the other YF EP, "Pals," you probably have more recall of the artwork than the actual music. the CD features a crude collage of pics of Jones, Gray and Garrigan, uh, playing together outside: basketball, jungle gym, you name it. they're smiling and giving thumbs-ups and whatnot. it sounds, ridiculous, and it is, but it's also completely fucking hilarious.

anyway, musically, "Pals" might be the band's best, most cohesive release. it's one 17-minute track (about the same length as "Riddler," though that one is divided up into i think ten tracks, which have demarcations that feel random) and it has this really nice slow build to it. in addition to the three main dudes, it features viola from Julie Pomerleau, whose work i'm unfamiliar with otherwise.

so the main groove is this kind of swaying, queasy odd-time riff. any Killmen fan will recognize Gray and Garrigan's penchant for these kind of ominous, uneasy chords and note mixtures. except for unlike that band, the music isn't really building to any sort of kick-in. it's just sort of flowing along, with these strange string and trumpet masses that float over and mask the main groove and then recede. a real cool effect and for the most part, minus the brazen jarringness of other YF stuff. (ok, so there is a pretty hairy ball of noise near the end, but whatev...)

was checking out Brise-Glace's one full-length, "When in Vanitas," last night. have come back to this record a lot over the years, though i don't even really know how much i like it. the best way to describe it would probably be a darker You Fantastic! whereas Thymme Jones seems to always veer toward the wacky or the quasischmaltzy--that's not intended as a dis; i love his schmaltz more than anything!--O' Rourke, who helmed Brise-Glace, seems to gravitate toward darker and more abrasive textures. it's basically a cut-up noise-rock disc, which--as O' Rourke has confirmed--is in some ways a tribute to that sort of style as practiced by This Heat.

it's not too obvious an homage, though, and if you're in the mood for something dark, textural and, yes, a bit "difficult," this is a good one to check out. especially notable are Jones's insanely cool beats, which O' Rourke often loops and distorts. among his many other talents, Jones is a completely sick drummer, with a knack for constructing these very minimal, yet very confusing patterns, often with just hi-hat bass and snare. (check out "Even Has a Half-Life" from Cheer-Accident's "Not a Food" for a great non-Brise-Glace example of this.) coming away from "When in Vanitas," it's very likely that the drumming is what you'll remember. kudos to O' Rourke for recognizing and exploiting the awesomeness of Thymme Jones to the fullest. i can't remember where i read this, but someone once described him as a "furry ball of drumming," or something like that, and that's the closest i've heard to anyone capturing his appeal. you've got to see his manelike hair to really get that though...

anyway, the last record i mentioned is the one i know the least, and that's the self-titled disc by Yona-Kit. if You Fantastic! bears Jones's stamp most prominently and Brise-Glace is essentially O' Rourke's band, Yona-Kit is very much K.K. Null's thing. it's Chicago-style noise rock--think Shellac or Jesus Lizard, but admittedly, not as inspired as either--with an absurdist bent. if you've heard Null's Zeni Geva band, you'll kind of know what to expect, except the individual players are a lot more interesting to listen to.

one of the guitarists--i'm almost positive it's Null--is doing his best Steve Albini impression, and the band excels at that sort of cyclical noise-rock skank that is the quintessence of heavy Midwestern indie music from the '90s, adding a little bit of nearly fruity prog flavor. over top, Null either barks in that angry-samurai voice of his or speak-sings in this weird mumble. it's not a brilliant record by any means, but if you're a fan of these musicians, it's a lot of fun b/c their personalities are right out front--dig Gray's unmistakably sproingy bass tone, though it might make you reach for your copies of "Face of Collapse" and "Gateway to Dignity"!

anyway, so like i was saying, it's very cool that Skin Graft honcho Mark Fischer put out all this stuff (not to mention provided hilarious cartoon artwork, such as the above image from the Yona-Kit sleeve, for a lot of it). he can't have sold more than a few thousand of each of these, if that, but for enthusiasts of that time and place, they're indispensable documents. visit Mark and Skin Graft and buy these for yourself; i think most of 'em are still in print.

while you're there, by all means, stock up on stuff by Killmen, Cheer-Accident, Colossamite and others if you're unlucky enough not to own this indispensable material!

here's a couple tracks for yer trouble:

1) You Fantastic! - "Friendless" from "Homesickness" (1998)

a pretty, placid, trumpet and guitar thing that may not represent the fucked-uppedness of the band that well, but works great on its own.

2) Brise-Glace - "Host of Latecomers" from "When in Vanitas" (1994)

nice noise/collage thing culminating in a sick, savage punk loop from Jones.

3) Yona Kit - "Twa Corbies" from s/t (1995)

a good example of this band's loopy, lovable noise-rock.

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