Fantastic Life! is Squealer's printed catalog, and includes reviews, interviews, musings and ruminations on all things Squealer. This is the electronic archive.

Issue One: Spring 1999


Records help make a Fantastic Life!


Shark Quest-Man On Stilts (Merge)
Dudes play in rock band. Dudes discover jazz and international music. Dudes get bored playing in rock band. Dudes start a "post-rock" band as they mature beyond the limitations of rock and begin to incorporate different styles into their work. Defined as such, "post-rock" aptly describes the music of the Chapel Hill's Shark Quest. The members are all veterans of the indie-rock wars of the mid-90s, but after flirtations with various degrees of pop success, they've retreated into music that's equally challenging yet less disposable. Man On Stilts (Merge), the band's second album, doesn't stray far from the designs of their first, but it's a more confident and complete recording. They retain their earlier elements: a smattering of Eastern European hootenanny; a ladleful of Morricone-isms. But this time out the arrangements pack a stronger punch, the melodies are more immediate. The intertwining stringed instruments (banjo, cello, mandolin, guitar) seem to float on melodic airstreams, and casually shift with an elegance that becomes more pronounced with each listening.

Thee Headcoats-Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990-1999 (Hangman)
But while bands like Shark Quest fill up with members constrained by the limitations of rock, bands like Thee Headcoats continue to reinvent the form with surprising dexterity. Seemingly plucked from a dank British rhythm n' blues club circa 1965 and dropped kicking and screaming in 1990, Thee Headcoats make primal rock so impassioned and committed that it puts 99% of everything thatŐs come before or since to shame. Besides a puritanical commitment to the sound and aura of classic rnb, Thee Headcoats are possessed with a wicked sense of humor, the desperate aggression of a cornered animal, and a propensity towards a high productivity rate. Despite a catalog containing over 50 lps, singles and cds, every Thee Headcoats recording has the intensity of a buzzbomb. As an introduction, Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990-1999 (Hangman), is as good a place to start as any, though the record doesn't compile the band's complete singles, nor is it possible to discern what the criteria is for inclusion. Still, the band operates at its best in the short, sharp bursts that singles provide, and the material here is consistently strong: the collaborations with Don Craine of 1960's combo Downliners Sect ("Headcoats On", "Be a Sect Maniac"); the tragicomic tale of afflicted love that is "Hog's Jaw"; the red letter birthright of "I'm Hurting" and 47 more over the course of two CDs If you've ever felt those two rock n' roll chords wearing exceedingly thin, a dose of this will set your memory straight.

Various Artists-Anthology of Folk Music Volume Four (Revenant)
Various Artists-Nashville: The Early String Bands Vol. 1 and 2 (County)
Thee Headcoats stylistic retrenchment reflects a general undercurrent in contemporary musical culture, as educated music consumers reject current trends in favor of deeper truths in earlier texts. Harry Smith's landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, which compiled obscure recordings from the late 1920's, is one such primary source. While not exactly household names, the musicians of Smith's Anthology were once completely forgotten, and they're now recognized as possessing a primitive essence that's positively thrilling. The Anthology itself was a surprising economic success, and that success opened up the gates for more re-releases, the most widely anticipated of which is Volume Four of the Anthology, released earlier this year on John Fahey's Revenant label. While extravagantly packaged and insightfully annotated, Volume Four, compiled from notes and tapes passed around by Smith himself, doesn't transcend the material the way the original Anthology did, due in no small part to the burden of expectations placed on it by the brilliance of the earlier collection. There's no way Volume Four could have the same impact, though it's is still an excellent collection of material from the middle 1930's featuring some familiar names (Carter Family, the Monroe Brothers, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson). County Records has been mining this old-time terrain for years without all the hoopla surrounding the Anthology, but their output is equally enjoyable. A couple recent reissues, Nashville: The Early String Bands Vol. 1 and 2, feature a breadth of material from the late 1920's and the earliest days of the Grand Ol Opry. The label's mainstay has been Uncle Dave Macon, an all-around entertainer and frailing banjo picker who appears six times on the two CDs, but the real surprise is found on Volume Two with the work of harmonica player Deford Bailey, a black man who was a member of the Grand Ol Opry from 1926-1941, and who's hybridization of hillbilly music and the blues is an underappreciated influence.

ABBC-Tete A Tete (Wabana)
John Convertino and Joey Burns are Calexico, a band whose outstanding dust-bowl atmospheres have graced several Touch and Go albums, and whose talents are an important part of the band Giant Sand. They've also collaborated with Victoria Williams and Richard Buckner, and their new project is a collaboration with the duo of Naim Amor and Thomas Belhom, two Frenchmen transplanted to Tucson. This group operates under the name ABBC (for Amor, Belhom, Burns and Convertino), and their new album is entitled Tete A Tete (Wabana). It's a serendipitous meeting of minds; Calexico already possessed a slightly French feel with their extensive use of the accordion, but Amor and Belhom amplify these tendencies in a way that allows them to mesh seamlessly with Calexico's languid desert folk. The opener "Le Valse Des 24 Heures", is a song as comfortable strolling down the Champs Elysees as it would be going to the Circle K for smokes; another song is entitled "En route to the Blanchisserie" which translates loosely as "Going to the Laundry". Still, despite the relaxed atmosphere, the music is also incredibly moving: Burns' "Gilbert", which picks up where Neil Young's post-apocalyptic "On The Beach" left off, is a slowly building, emotionally gripping drama with sparse, yet richly detailed, musical accompaniment.

Kayhan Kalhor and Mahammad Reza Shajarian-Night Silence Desert (Traditional Crossroads)
The desert, both emotional and physical, makes its presence felt on the new album from Kayhan Kalhor and Mahammad Reza Shajarian. Kalhor and Shajarian are Iranian musicians, and this album incorporates the folk music of Khorasan in northeastern Iran with traditional Persian classical music. Kalhor, as the arranger, brings together modern and ancient elements of Persian music, and cross-pollinates different strands with unusual pairings of instruments and styles. Kalhor is a master of the kamancheh, a bowed instrument similar to a fiddle in sound, and his trills and sweeping strokes are mesmerizing. The album's opener, a twenty minute suite subdivided into five different passages, gradually builds in intensity until Shajarian joins at roughly eleven minutes in, his richly emotive voice sending chills down the spine. Shajarian is regarded as the master of Persian traditional singing, with numerous international awards to show for it, and his vocal melismatics echo the swirling of Kalhor's kamancheh. The rest of the album continues at this exalted level, with "Festive Occasion", on which the duo are joined by a range of Iranian traditional instrumentalists, an especially vibrant work.

Abunai!-Round Wound (Camera Obscura)
The collage effect is also used effectively by Boston rock band Abunai! on their newest release, a compilation of instrumental recordings from 1997-2000, edited into a nicely paced, seamless whole. The band's musical hearts are on their sleeves, with evocative hints of all their heroes; Funkadelic meets Hawkwind on the opener, "Time of the Funk-Lords", Spacemen 3 on the relentless "Motorcycle Boots". The band is also meticulous when it comes to their package design, with the Round-Wound cover art a dead-on parody of a package of guitar strings.

Anti: Clockwise-Rewatching (Parallelism)
Collage is also the operative key for Tono-Bungay member Robert Dennis, in his solo guise of Anti: Clockwise. His new recording, Rewatching (Parallelism), is a trio of lengthy dense electronic improvisations that have more in common with early 80's British industrial music (think Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire) than with contemporary electronic strains. Dennis conjures up a shuddering load of post-media overkill and saturation; the buzz of late-night television, overheard snatches of music and conversation, wriggling electric guitar runs and a low-tech buzzing undercurrent all combine to make a work which strikes the solar plexus like a dull thud. If this is the sound of the city, then perhaps a vacation is in order.

Deltron 3030-Self Titled (75 Ark)
Millennial paranoia and dense musical construction are also key elements to the work of Deltron 3030, the latest project from wunderkind producer Dan Nakamura (a.k.a. Dan the Automator), whose work with Kool Keith in Dr. Octagon wrote the book on whacked-out hip-hop. Here he's joined by Del the Funky Homosapien on vocals, who spews disjointed, paranoid futurist wordplay over Nakamura's exquisitely programmed tracks. Nakamura is expert at crafting eminently hummable songs out of a diverse mixture of source material, and while Del occasionally gets hung-up on his own dense locution, the results improve with repeated listenings until you find yourself singing lines like "underground chilling with the mole man and his whole fam" until people on the subway start to look at you strangely.

White Stripes-DeStijl (Sympathy For the Recording Industry)
There's a surface simplicity to the Detroit duo the White Stripes that conceals a complex talent. Guitarist/vocalist Jack White and his drummer sister Meg are often misidentified as a garage band due to their stripped-down lineup and interest in the blues. Unlike a sad majority of musicians following the garage path because they're too lazy or unimaginative to carve out their own sound, the White Stripes boldly dive into the form with an eye on creating something new and remarkable from the basic pieces. As their album proves, the White Stripes are able to incorporate the blues in the same manner as the late 60's British bands did, by using the form as a convenient emotional and structural jumping-off point for more complex explorations. Despite only being a duo, the band have the kick of early Led Zeppelin and Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones; the slide guitar driven "Little Bird" and Son House's "Death Letter" both roll with a Page/Plant swagger, while managing to avoid sounding like a cock-rock cliche. Mr. White even does a creditable Mick Jagger on "Sister, Do You Know My Name?". But beyond the exceptional skills of being able to incorporate their classic rock reverence without coming off as a parody, the duo has the uncanny ability to write memorable three chord songs like "You're Pretty Good Looking" that lodge in your brain with an immediacy that makes them thoroughly contemporary.

Faust-The Land Of Ukko and Rauni (Ektro)
The band Faust were one of the chief proponents of German rock in the 1970's, and while most of their American and British rock peers have long since devolved into irrelevancy, Faust's current lineup may be the most daring incarnation of the band. Original members Werner Zappi Diermaier and Hans Joachim Irmler are the current mainstays, and their recent work moves even further into an atmospheric ethno/techno realm that will appeal to electronic fetishists and graying psychedelic warriors alike. This album is an excellent document of where their heads are at these days. In the early 70's the band explored a variety of different tonalities, many of which were pretty close to conventional rock, though with a delightfully skewed sensibility. Today's Faust create lengthy sound beds that they embellish over the course of almost an hour and a half over the course of the two CDs of this set, eventually unfolding into a familiar tribal rhythm on the first disc's closer "As You Might Know (Du Weoisst Schon)", continuing to add dense textures and claustrophobic elements until the song throbs with futuristic menace.

I-Roy-Touting I Self (Heartbeat)
Jamaican DJ I-Roy followed in the wake of the similarly-named U-Roy and Dennis Alcapone in the mid-70's, but his erudition, harmonically sophisticated flow and lyrical humor soon led him to become one of the most popular Jamaican DJs. Touting I Self is a career-spanning collection chosen by I-Roy himself (otherwise known as Roy Reid) just prior to his death, though the liner notes are a bit shaky as far as pinpointing the dates of release or other discographic details. In Heartbeat's defense, it takes a master detective to sort out the vagaries and evolution of the DJ stock-in-trade "versions"; remakes of songs utilizing a familiar rhythm track with new vocals placed on top. Most of these tracks originate in the mid-70's, certainly a golden age for reggae, and the musical tracks are thick with reverb and warmth. I-Roy is adept at a quick lyrical flow, but his sweet singing voice is his secret weapon, and he sings his lyrics as often as he toasts them. His melodic singing works to great effect on the best tracks, including one of a series of jibes at fellow DJ Prince Jazzbo, "Set Yourself Jazzbo", which also manages to be one of I-Roy's funniest tracks full of playful taunts towards his competitor.

Vladislav Delay-Anima (Mille Plateaux)
"Atmospheric" is pretty much the operative word when dealing with most modern electronic music, but Finnish producer Vladislav Delay develops more effective atmospheres than most on his new record Anima (Mille Plateaux). Delay's work bubbles and pops in a manner similar to others operating in a modern dub style (such as Pole), but he also incorporates musical elements similar to composer Angelo Badalamente (of Twin Peaks fame) on the lengthy tracks, which gives his work a menacing undercurrent and an extramusical tension.

Yoko Ono-Blueprint For a Sunrise (Capitol)
It's difficult to disconnect the work of Yoko Ono from her biography, and while most people know only surface details of that biography (Fluxus artist, John Lennon's wife, grieving widow), she's spent much of her subsequent career reacting to it. Her new CD, Blueprint For a Sunrise, a sequel to 1995's Rising, continues her exploration of women's rights and the self-identity issues that have characterized her musical work for years. Unfortunately, most listeners will bring a predisposition (or lack thereof) to the proceedings before they even hear a note. Her unfettered voice can be shockingly primal, with trills and guttural rumblings that are almost animalistic ("Mulberry," in particular, a live duet between Ono and her son, Sean, will drive the less experimentally inclined from the room almost immediately), but in other places, like on "I Remember Everything," Ono crafts rock in the grand tradition of dramatic performers like Jim Morrison and David Bowie. Lyrical references to spousal abuse give the voyeuristic plenty of grist for the mill, but despite the reputation for difficulty that proceeds Ono's music, Sunrise is attractive for both Ono's brave songwriting and a number of eminently listenable songs. As time grows between Ono and the biographical details that shaped her public persona, a more sympathetic view of her work begins to emerge. Once a mere footnote to her biography, Ono's music is now considered on its own merits, and it offers a number of pleasures, even while it continues to thoughtfully provoke.

Beachwood Sparks-Once We Were Trees (Sub Pop)
The Los Angeles band Beachwood Sparks traffics in the accoutrements of country-rock as practiced by the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds, but they are really the inheritors of an airy Los Angeles rock sound which has floated out of the canyons and off the sidewalks like an evocative sunset since the folk-rock boom of the mid-60's. Brian Wilson's Beach Boys have become an active influence on independent rock artists, and it is from the indie milieu that Beachwood Sparks spring (the band includes members of Further, the Lilys and the Pernice Brothers). Contemporary indie artists are attempting to recreate Wilson's elaborate orchestrations on a budget, and a pedal steel guitar comes in handy when evoking a shimmering emotionalism, while the iconography of country music equally perfect for evoking the themes of confusion, longing and loss. Country music's cloak of authenticity is a template contemporary artists can use to jumpstart their own expression, and it's in this manner that Beachwood Sparks utilize it on their second full length album Once We Were Trees. Beachwood Sparks aren't so much a country-rock band as an orchestral rock band that uses country colorings for atmosphere. A more accurate comparison may be that they combine a Strawberry Alarm Clock innocence with a Procul Harum orchestral melancholy, give or take a banjo or two. There's an understated elegance to much of the music, and a sweet softness that's perfect for drifting fall afternoons. But the band succumbs to some of the worst indie rock tendencies, including a disconnected lyrical obscurity, and an inability to self-edit. Some of the songs feel underdeveloped despite all the pretty textures in which they're wrapped, and they don't hold up well in comparison to the classics of the genre. But when analyzed outside of country rock and within the broader L.A. musical tradition, the record makes more sense. I keep hoping they'll go for the jugular, to attack the songwriting and performance with aggressive confidence as opposed to studied nonchalance, but with repeated listenings the charms of the record come through.

Aphex Twin-Drukqs (Warp/Sire)
Richard James, the clown prince of electronica, returns with his first album in 5 years, a double CD set clocking in at over 100 minutes. Radiohead spent a good bit of his absence singing his praises, but even without the reflected glow his work is as exciting and innovative as ever, running the gamut from jittery electofunk to meditative pieces that are almost classically romantic. There's a breadth to his work that few other electronic artists are able to pull off. The extremes of his harsh electronics can be uncompromisingly discordant, but the flip is the kinetic rush of tracks like "Omgyjya-Switch", which are totally exhilarating. Even more impressive is the range of material on the quiet side, from haunting atmospheres to Satie-influenced piano solos.

The North Mississippi Allstars-51 Phantom (Tone-Cool)
The North Mississippi Allstars, whose new record 51 Phantom is out on the Wellesley Hills, MA label Tone-Cool, are poster boys for the problematic issues facing contemporary southern rock. Drummer/vocalist Cody and guitarist/vocalist Luther Dickinson are the talented duo at the core of the NMAS, both the sons of legendary producer/musician Jim Dickinson, a man whose lengthy resume includes almost forty years of work with the likes of Big Star, Ry Cooder, the Rolling Stones, Primal Scream, the Replacements and a host of others misfits and oddballs, both known and obscure. Dickinson Sr.'s iconoclastic instincts are one of the saving graces for the NMAS, as the two brothers begin their musical journey at a more enlightened point than most to the possibilities presented by southern music, and this openness saves them from bar-band purgatory. NMAS remain true to their roots in the country blues while incorporating a slew of contemporary influences, including radio rock, heavy metal and modern production techniques, yet they're still burdened by the influence of the first generation of southern rock bands such as ZZ Top, and especially, the Allman Brothers, who definitively wed blues to rock in such a majestic manner that further musical progression in the region has been retarded for more than twenty years. While the trio of opening tracks represents their take on the boogie styles best exemplified by ZZ Top, the band eventually settles in to a gentle rusticity that evokes the fife and drum sounds of Othar Turner (a production client of Luther Dickinson's) and the simple, wide open elegance of the Allman's "Blue Sky" (quoted directly during the guitar solo of "Lord Have Mercy"). While the music isn't always distinctively original, the band's honest approach and obvious intelligence help them retain a freshness that many of their contemporaries lack. "Mud", the closing track, is a musical anomaly (the Metallica/beatbox hybrid of its sonics is the closest the band gets towards contemporary rock radio fodder), but is also the band's most complex statement of purpose: the mud both a metaphoric source of pride ("I'm in the mud and the mud's in me"), as well as mysterious source of their strength ("if you don't know, I ain't gonna tell you"). It's a fitting close to a record that hints at the strengths of a band just beginning to get their feet wet.