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Deep Voices #76: ’90s guitar music, pt 2
Berated by a teenager
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After I wrote about the band Truth Club last week, a number of people got in touch to say how much they responded to the music. Their music is heartfelt stuff and it appears to have resonated with people my age who grew up in the ’90s, during the advent of their post-hardcore/noise rock/emo sound. I’ve been listening to their album repeatedly, and it inspired me to dig into their antecedents, some of whom I loved at the time, others I’ve discovered fresh.
Two and a half years ago, for Deep Voices #30, I did a themed playlist of ’90s underground bands driven by wiry guitar, and I thought I’d make a sequel. I wrote then about the group Lync, whose songwriter Sam Jayne had recently died. Their music was out of print then, but I’m happy to say that their 1994 album, These Are Not Fall Colors, was reissued by the Suicide Squeeze label last week. It’s an amazing, buoyant record. It feels like a shadow companion to the grunge scene that was emerging at the same time and in the same place. The music is genuinely fragile, with nervous guitar lines and rambling bass. The vocals are somewhere between plainspoken talk-singing and hoarse screaming. The whole project feels like an accident, like they didn’t write songs so much as happen upon them while on a walk in the woods.
Truth Club has freshened up this sound. A primary update appears to be much higher recording quality, something that time and progress has allowed for. Some of the bands on this week’s playlist work well with a lo-fi sheen, but others feel like they would have flourished with a clarity of vision spotlighting their ramshackle ideas. Lync feels like they are pushing against the claustrophobic production, but they don’t ever break through it. Maybe that tension is part of what makes the music so special.
Whatever it is, this stuff holds up. Trigger warning: there’s a good amount of yelling on these 15 songs. I’m immune to it at this point, but I understand if you’d rather not be berated by a teenager.
The distance between subgenres, as they are emerging, feels like they can be measured in miles. As time passes, those gaps shrink. I’m thinking here of my inclusion of the Promise Ring, who were a certified emo band, but whose album 30 Degrees Everywhere is way weirder than they got credit for. The jazzy “My Firetower Flame” moves at half speed, closer in spirit to slowcore or mathrock than the pure harmonics of emo peers like Braid or the Get Up Kids. There was a built-in gravity to bands like Codeine, Come, or A Minor Forest that escaped me at the time. I love them now, but the shades of gray separating them from emo are a lot lighter than I remember. The poppier side of emo music can have a disingenuousness to it, a woe-is-me sadness that’s easy to dismiss. But, Promise Ring’s songs are inscrutable. There are moments of bliss, but they crumble.
Listening to 30 Degrees now, an album I played an endless amount of times in my teens, I’m struck by the record’s complexity, the maturity of its frailty. It feels brave. The vocals are vulnerable, the lyrics opaque and impressionistic. These guys were in their early 20s, so the music is so serious. Sometimes self-serious, which can be a trap. But it doesn’t feel cloying, it feels sweet. It fits right in with these other people screaming their faces off in pain. That’s one way to signify genuinity. This is another.
One last note, semi-related: Can someone please remix the entire ’90s and remove that pinging snare drum sound? It hurts my ears/heart.
When I was growing up, I was obsessed with this band Palatka, a hardcore band who stumbled through riffs, yelled, and then coagulated briefly into a “song” It was songwriting by sleight of hand. I loved that illusion of chaos. But it’s a hard magic trick to pull off and even their later recordings grew tired with operating in shambles.
The only other band who accomplished such teetering furor was the oddly named Agna Moraine’s Autobiography. I loved their side of the split 7-inch with (the honestly pretty bad) band Rentamerica. It begins with a happy little guitar jangle, while the vocalist just talks. “Desperation is still lingering,” he says. The drums are jazzy. The bass is played like a second guitar, with little disregard for rhythm. Then some other guy starts yelling. But the music doesn’t change. The lingering vocals keep lingering. It’s like someone very mad man wandered into the wrong recording session and they just decided to keep it. Strange and entrancing music.
Agna Moraine’s never recorded an album. So I was delighted to discover the existence of one by the band My Own Pine Box, which was comprised of most of their members. They recorded the self-titled record in 1999, which, according to Discogs, was released on CD-R in a run of 50 in 2001, flying under the radar of even true Agna Moraine freaks like me. Well, it’s been reissued and released on vinyl thanks to Berlin label Thirty Something Records, and it’s great.
The first word you hear on the album is, “Yeah!” It’s like the singer is so excited he had to start with a little celebration. Quickly, everyone joins him in an exuberant chorus: “I want to see the ocean, I want to feel the sky!” The guitar noodles away. That’s it, that’s the whole song, two minutes of ocean desire. The song I included here, “Nineteen Eighty Fuck” (LOL), has the funniest, most peculiar lyric of the album. “I woke up this morning/ I didn’t know I’d hear Cheap Trick on my motherfucking radio.” Is that good? Bad? Who knows. The guitar sounds like it’s splashing around in puddles. The lyric returns, almost rapped, in a coda, late in the song, as some other guy repeats, “Honesty: the best philosophy.” Your guess is as good as mine. Another great lyric: “The possibility of discovering nothing/ Glory.”
It’s weird but exciting hearing this music so long after its creation, outside of any context. Agna Moraine’s Autobiography had a reputation as pretentious, overly emotional goobers who barely played their instruments live, preferring to cry and fall on the floor. That may be true. But that’s funny, too. The humor and play in this music is an underrated factor. Impenetrability doesn’t always have to mean solemnity.
I grew up not too far from Wesleyan University, which, in the mid-’90s, had an amazing college radio station, WESU. This is where I discovered things like noise music; one show played Merzbow, which I thought was radio static droning on in error. One of my favorite shows was called the Rorschach Test and every week they would play two songs: Void’s “My Rules” and Karp’s “Bastard of Disguise.” “My Rules,” if you’re not familiar, is a pinnacle of ’80s hardcore, a strong choice of college radio flagbearer. “Bastard of Disguise” was an odder choice for mandatory repeated play. It’s a sludgy song that sounds somehow both like speed metal and pop-punk, where the vocalist screams, “Ding dong I’m fucking with your head!” over and over. I was obsessed with this, of course. Listening to the song now, it seems nuts. But at that point, it had ceased to have any meaning other than as theme music.
I used to call in to the WESU shows and request different songs, or sometimes simply to tell the DJs I was listening. I didn’t have anything to say, but I wanted to feel proximity to what then felt like the center of a universe that was tantalizingly close, if just out of reach. Another show, whose name I cannot remember (but whose DJ was a woman who I distinctly remember had the email address email@example.com—anyone know who this was?) introduced me to a lot of the music in the style of this playlist. I was most taken with a band called Angel Hair, on the legendary hardcore-ish label from San Diego, Gravity Records. I’d call every week and request she play them. It was the only way I could hear the music. One week she said she hadn’t brought the record with her, but thought I might like another band on Gravity, Clickatat Ikatowi (who were featured on Deep Voices #30). The whole experience made me feel like a person, someone with taste, who could participate. I felt completely isolated from this whole world of music, ordering tapes and records through the mail, reading about them in zines, hearing whatever I could in a pre-MP3 era. I took the scraps.
I guess it’s the slow food feel of this scene that makes me like that music still. A person on the phone recommended me a band 30 years ago; I still remember. That exchange feels like it was from an era that can’t exist anymore. There’s so much knowledge going around now, it’s hard to be ignorant. That’s a good thing. But it’s also hard to be passionate with so much to take in, hard to be patient, to wait in earnest for some radio station DJ who doesn’t have to give a shit about you to pick up the phone.
Look, I’m not a luddite. I’m not advocating for a return to analog life. I generally hate nostalgia. The passage of time doesn’t signify anything but loss to me. But this music, at a time when I needed it, was a lifeboat. Listening to so much of it this past week, I was surprised to find that it still is.