B y T i m o t h y G a s s e n
Editor's Note: This new monthly column explores the world of independent labels, music collectibles, vinyl and re-issues.
MOST OBSERVERS PROBABLY thought attention for the doom-and-gloom band Joy Division would end with singer Ian Curtis' 1980 suicide. The band was just breaking into American consciousness, and its existence was snuffed on the eve of international stardom. They were apparently just another carcass for the trash heap, a footnote in the "what if" chapter of rock history.
Those observers couldn't have been more wrong.
Joy Division seems to be more influential now than at any time during their actual 1977-1980 existence. Countless bands over the past decade and a half have borrowed their patented somber, ambient-tinged stylings--but with few actually touching the original's grace.
Their initial two albums have continued to sell in amazing numbers, on both vinyl and CD, and various collections of unreleased tracks and 45 sides have also been snapped up by a growing fan base. Biographies of Curtis, band histories and tribute albums continue to spew forth.
Now Warner Bros. has unleashed a somewhat definitive best-of collection, Permanent: Joy Division 1995.
In many ways this new "best of" is a compliment to 1988's Substance collection. That compilation included the band's early demos, some B-sides and EP tracks. In contrast, Permanent takes the most evocative songs from the band's Unknown Pleasures and Closer LPs and adds other rare B-sides. Together, the collections represent an amazingly wide spectrum of Britain's most influential band after The Beatles.
Curtis' angry, addled, depressed and chilling vocals are the core of Joy Division's artistic appeal. Openly influenced by The Doors' Jim Morrison, Curtis uses brutal poetic imagery and a gravely low vocal register in an unrelenting attack on the senses.
The musical backing for most Joy Division tracks is similarly toned in dark blacks, with trademark plodding dirge bass, screeching guitar and deceptively simplistic drumming densely mixed. The occasional elegant keyboards and synthesizer are also used to great effect and contrast on some of their best work. This element of dark elegance is a cornerstone that separates Joy Division from most of their pale imitators.
The fact that all of this sounds remarkably fresh and powerful today is the main point. At a time when fifth-generation copy bands such as Green Day are perceived to be "all new," the startlingly original tones of Joy Division stick out all the more.
You just can't fake Joy Division's type of glorious insanity.
MONTREAL'S THE Haunted began exploring their own musical madness 15 years before Joy Division was formed. They ruled Canada's garage rock scene while squeaking out a few 45s and an impossibly rare 1967 LP, then faded from memory. The garage-psych haven Voxx label rescued the band from obscurity with two separate compilation albums of Haunted material in the early 1980s, and has now combined those two vinyl re-issues into one self-titled CD.
Its obvious high point is the original tune "1-2-5," which has become a garage band standard and classic along the lines of The Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard" or The Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White." It's pure white '60s garage blues, in other words, and two different versions grace the CD.
While the band usually sang in English, French-language versions of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk" (titled "Porquoi" here) and Hendrix's "Purple Haze" ("Vapeur Mauve") are some of the most curious (and interesting) covers I've ever heard.
ON A completely less interesting tangent, Medicine Records has spit out the new Butterfly CD from Earth Eighteen. Drummer Chip Staples' explanation of how he ended up in the band speaks volumes about its worth. "These two guys who looked like space vampires asked me, 'Are you willing to look like a freak for money?' "
I think we've stumbled upon the crux of this band: selling a '70s glam-freak image for money. Yeah, the requisite Bowie/T. Rex lame-o power chords and glitter eye-liner posings are all in place throughout Butterfly, but fall well short of their original inspiration, the best worst of '70s rock.
"It's all about borrowing," offers vocalist/guitarist Jon DuPree dubiously. "If they would have had samplers back in the classic rock days (Since when is 1975 rock considered classic?), I'm sure they would have done things differently." Differently, perhaps, but boring, overblown, pretentious '70s rock wouldn't have been any better. (I'm not picking on Kansas here. They used glockenspiels, and I'm totally into "Glock-Rock.")
Back in reality, the new release from Letters To Cleo, Wholesale Meats And Fish, reminds me that many slacker rock musicians should play but not speak. Case in point: guitarist Michael Eisenstein says his band's song "I Could Sleep," "is one of those mid-tempo happy songs that Wings might have done." Wings?
I wanted to like this (slightly) rock and (mostly) pop act, despite the saccharine cutesy lady singer and the band's vacant smiles. But aspiring to the heights (depths?) of Wings? I'm gonna go trade this sucker in now and find a (vinyl) copy of Band On The Run instead.
On a more colorful note, Seven Day Diary's Pamela Laws and Nancy Hess are described in their press goop as, "A couple of mystic mermaids swimming against the tide--seductive, sonic and sensual."
OK, that gets my attention, but is there any music involved in their Skin And Blister debut for Warner Bros.? Yep, you betcha. Laws and Hess combine for some gutsy yet smooth dual vocals, full of emotion and vibrancy. "Air," "World Becomes You" and "He Can" all live with a certain energy that rises above most of the bland "alternative" dreck.
Balancing a meaty combination of pop-folk-rock, Seven Day Diary delivers the proverbial promising debut. But "mystic mermaids"? Well, the band does hail from the bayland of San Francisco, so anything's possible.
Finally, I'll go out on a limb and say that the most difficult goal for any rock band--at any level--is to find its own distinctive sound. Think really hard, and you'll only be able to count a few fingers worth of acts that are identifiable after only a few seconds of sound.
Maids Of Gravity don't quite make it onto that counting hand, but their impressive self-titled debut on Virgin gets them in the waiting room. Mesmerizing melodies, sinewy dual guitar leads, suitably fuzzed backgrounds and grooving rhythms are only half the story--these lads also understand the art of restraint. Tracks such as "Only Dreaming" and "Introverted Skies" know when to pull back, use dynamics and volume (low and high) to their best effect.
It's a lesson that any debut could use.
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