Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Devo - Freedom Of Choice

Just learned about the death of former Devo band member Alan Myers this morning, and wanted to say a few brief words in his honor.

In the obituaries I've read, they kept referring to Alan as "the third Devo drummer".  To me, he will always be known as "Devo's drummer", period - all who came before and after him were just pretenders to his drum stool.  Alan supplied the off-kilter, precision beats to every song in the band's heyday, from their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! through to Devo's 80's mainstream popularity.  The guy was nothing more than the 'glue', whose steady work at the skins defined the Devo sound and held the group together through some increasingly iffy albums in the early 1980s (1981's New Traditionalists, 1982's Oh
No! It's Devo, and 1984's Shout), as Devo moved away from its New Wave roots and became more of a synthesizer-driven pop band.

Myers finally quit the band in the mid-80s, as Devo began to rely more and more on electronic drums for their music.  In hindsight, he left the band almost exactly at the right time, as Devo became more and more of a faded cartoon imitation of itself as it soldiered on into the early 1990s.  I always respected Alan for having the instincts and integrity to get out when he did, instead of hanging on for more Devo paychecks doing music he didn't respect and had little input into.  After he parted ways with Devo, he remained in Los Angeles and became a electrical contractor, but still found time to play on the weekends in local bands with his wife (Skyline Electric) and daughter (Swahili Blonde). 

He was apparently happy and contented with his life, so much so that he had no interest in joining his old band mates when Devo hit the oldies circuit in the mid-90s and began recording again in the mid-2000s.  While he was no longer a part of Devo, to true fans, he will ALWAYS be part of that band.

I could write plenty more about Alan's passing, but there have been tributes a-plenty out there already, written a lot better than any I could have put together.  One of the best was in today's Los Angeles Times - check it out when you have the chance.

For myself, I always thought that Devo peaked with their 1980 album Freedom Of Choice.  In addition to containing their biggest hit, "Whip It", it also has the best overall collection of music since their debut album - all driven by Myers' relentless beat.  Here's the band playing a live version of one of my favorite songs off of this album, "Snowball":

Just listen to those licks he's laying down - spot on every time!

So, in tribute to the late Alan Myers, here's Devo's Freedom Of Choice, released on Warner Brothers Records on May 16th, 1980.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

R.I.P. Alan.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mary Hansen - Hybird EP

I should have been a Stereolab fan long before I actually became one, but for some reason the band and I never connected up.  They had long been on the periphery of my consciousness, but it took years for the connection between us to be made.

Oddly enough, I had the opportunity to be into Stereolab from nearly the very beginning. The band made their first U.S. appearance in the fall of 1992, with a week of shows in selected clubs on the East Coast. After their debut gig at the Knitting Factory in New York and a follow-on performance at the legendary Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stereolab travelled to the Nation's Capital for a show at the 9:30 Club on the evening of Sunday, October 25th. That afternoon, however, the band had scheduled an in-store performance at Vinyl Ink Records in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, playing stuff off of their debut LP Peng!

I was actually in the store that very afternoon, a couple of hours earlier, trolling for CDs to replace some that had recently been stolen out of my car while it was parked overnight in my 'secure' apartment garage in Arlington (those thieving bastards took some great stuff - early import copies of stuff like The Fall's Dragnet and The Smiths' Hatful of Hollow - things that ended up taking years to replace). I messed around at Vinyl Ink for about an hour or so, but couldn't find anything I was looking for. I noticed the flyers around the store announcing the Stereolab gig, and I know I walked by the open area of the store where they would be playing several times during my visit that day (the mikes and cords were already set up). But I had no idea who the band was at the time, and didn't know a thing about their music. Plus, I didn't feel like hanging around Silver Spring all day . . . so I bolted. In hindsight, I made a big mistake.

It was years later that I began getting into the band. While on my grad school internship up in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of 1996, I went to a show at TT The Bear's Place in Central Square that featured three bands, including the headliner The Kelley Deal 6000.  I enjoyed the music so much that over that night and the next day, I acquired the latest releases of all three, including The Laurels and Trona. Although at the time I didn't like Trona's album as much as I hoped I would, one song on it stood out - "Wow And Flutter", which I soon discovered was a cover version of a Stereolab song. After this revelation, I quickly ran out to find the source of the original - 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, which I tracked down at the old HMV store in Brattle Square, near Harvard University.

With the first listen, I became an instant fan. Songs like "International Coloring Contest", "Ping Pong" and "Fiery Yellow" helped carry me through that summer. It was the music itself that first drew me in; It took me a little while to fully comprehend the Gallic-inflected, politically-charged lyrics of French-born lead singer Laetitia Sadier.  But I was jazzed enough about this band that I immediately set out to acquire their back catalogue.

The first of their past albums that I purchased was their most recent one (for that time), Emperor Tomato Ketchup, released in April 1996. I couldn't have picked a better one to stoke my Stereolab fandom - Emperor Tomato Ketchup was the first album where the band began to expand its musical horizons and move away from the "drone" rock that had been the hallmark of their earlier albums. On this album, Stereolab ventured into the realms of hard rock ("The Noise Of Carpet"), hip-hop ("Metronomic Underground"), funk ("Spark Plug") and dance music ("Emperor Tomato Ketchup"), while still retaining the group's unique sound and flair. I thought practically every song on this album was fantastic, but it was through the ones that became my particular favorites ("Cybele's Reverie" and "Les Yper Sound") that I first became more completely aware of the vocal byplay between Sadier and backing vocalist Mary Hansen.

Mary Hansen was born in Brisbane, Australia in 1966, one of eight children of a member of the Australian parliament and his wife, a former opera singer. Mary's early life was fairly uneventful; she graduated from high school at 17, and for a while worked at a bank and other businesses in and around the Brisbane area. Tiring of her routine life in Australia, Mary moved to London, England in 1988, where she began dabbling on the fringes of the local music scene there.  She soon became a
backing singer for local indie rock artists The Wolfhounds (one of their songs was included on the celebrated and influential NME C86 cassette compilation in 1986).

At a show in 1989, The Wolfhounds opened for the band McCarthy, at the time a big name in English indie rock. Hansen met McCarthy guitarist and band founder Tim Gane at the gig, and they quickly became friends. Gane broke up McCarthy soon after that aforementioned gig, and with his girlfriend Sadier and transplanted Kiwi musician Martin Kean (briefly a member of New Zealand's The Chills) began working on a new project that quickly evolved into Stereolab. Gane didn't forget his new friend, though. He invited Mary to join the new band just before the band's first recordings; by the time Stereolab's first LP, Peng!, was released in April 1992, Mary was a full-fledged member, playing guitar and keyboards and contributing backup vocals.

Hansen's voice was the perfect complement to Sadier's; their singing styles and vocal range were very similar . . . but different enough to add nuance and color to many of the band's songs. Those two songs I mentioned above, "Cybele's Reverie" and "Les Yper Sound", were the ones that first hooked me on the depth and quality of their intertwined voicess. But as the years passed and my Stereolab fandom (and collection) grew, I found many more examples of this byplay that I fell in love with: "Sadistic" and "Lo Boob Oscillator" from Refried Ectoplasm, "Miss Modular" and "Refractions In The Plastic Pulse" off of Dots & Loops; "Captain Easychord" from Sound-Dust. By the early 2000s, Hansen and Sadier had all but perfected their unique 'sing-song' style of vocal counterpoint and harmony that helped establish Stereolab as one of the best, most influential bands of the era. As far as I was concerned, "The Groop" had never put out a bad song, and I looked forward to each new release every year or so.

Stereolab released Sound-Dust in late 2001, and in 2002 they began preparing for their next album by building their own studio in France. There was a little band friction over that summer, as Gane and Sadier ended their long romantic relationship. But they elected to remain together as band mates, and keep Stereolab going as an operating concern. As a lead-up to commencing recording of their next album in their new home, in October their label released ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions, a compilation of the band's live recordings over the years on the BBC. At the end of that year, the group was preparing to leave London and relocate to Bordeaux for their next recording session. All in all, things were looking pretty positive for the band.

On the afternoon of December 9th, 2002, Mary Hansen was killed when a truck backed into her while she was riding her bicycle near London's Finsbury Square.

At that time, I was reading a lot of online news, regularly reviewing major domestic and international Internet sources like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, SkyNews and Reuters. I came across the news of Mary's death while browsing the December 10th version of BBC News, and I was just . . . stunned. It seemed unreal, and unfathomable. I never knew much about her private life or personality - all of the members of Stereolab were enigmas in that regard, offering up few personal details in their music and interviews. But Mary's loss was a significant blow to me. What I knew of her, I knew through her music . . . and now the source of that music was no more, gone in an instant. It was hard to wrap my head around it. The jolt I received from her death was just as great as the one I received less than two weeks later, when the sudden death of The Clash's Joe Strummer made international headlines.

Stereolab was just as stunned as their fans were; the band went on a long hiatus as its members grieved for their lost friend. But near the end of 2003, Stereolab began to regroup, and by that fall had released their first post-Hansen recording, the Instant 0 In The Universe EP. The band continued releasing albums and EPs up until their breakup in late 2009. I quite enjoyed all of these releases, including long-players like 2004's Margerine Eclipse (essentially a Hansen tribute album) and 2008's Chemical Chords, and I attended a couple of the band's tours during that time. But as good as the music continued to be, there always seemed to be something . . . missing from late-period Stereolab in terms of their musical approach - and that missing piece was the small but essential contribution Mary Hansen made to each and every recording.

Hansen had a very active musical life outside of Stereolab, recording vocals on releases by Mouse On Mars and The High Llamas, and teaming up with members of Seattle band Hovercraft to form the space-rock collective Schema (which released an EP in 2000).  But very little of Hansen's own music was available until 2005, over two years after her passing, when her friends gathered up the few recordings she had made on her own and released them on the EP Hybird. The disc (featuring Hansen's own artwork) contains three songs that she completed before her death, plus a fourth previously unfinished track that was completed by her old Stereolab bandmate Andy Ramsey. The music is infused with the signature 'Stereolab sound', but filtered through Hansen's own musical esthetic. The best track, in my opinion, is "Twenty Feet Behind", a gentle, swirling wash of organ, xylophone and drums, suffused with Mary's signature "Ah-ahs" . . . beautiful.

But I'll let you hear the rest for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Here, for your listening pleasure, is the only solo release by Stereolab's Mary Hansen, the Hybird EP, released posthumously on Horizontal Records on February 18th, 2005. Have a listen, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ween - Pure Guava

On the evening of Wednesday, June 2nd, 1993, the Naval Antarctic Support Unit (NASU), Christchurch, New Zealand, held one of its periodic Hail and Farewell ceremonies after working hours at the Southern Lights Bar, located on the edge of U.S. Navy property close by Christchurch International Airport. The event on this particular evening marked the departure of the current base Supply Officer, Nan, and the arrival of the new SUPPO - me, a fresh-faced lieutenant, recently arrived from a duty station near Washington, DC.

I had worked closely with my old friend Nan (we were friends back at the Naval Academy a few years earlier) for the past couple of weeks since I landed in NZ, meeting the people and learning the ropes related to my position. This day was our last joint stewardship of the office, and we spent the morning and early afternoon turning over responsibilities, with Nan providing me with the final bits of information and instruction needed to fully get into my new job at NASU. But she left the administration building earlier than usual that afternoon, ostensibly to run some errands out in town and to head home to prepare for the evening's festivities. I slogged away at paperwork for the rest of the day, then at five o'clock I quickly changed into civilian clothes, left the office and walked over to the Southern Lights (my car was still weeks away from arriving; I assumed it was on a container ship somewhere in the Eastern Pacific at that time). Some petty officers were already there, getting things ready along with the civilian bar staff. I was one of the early arrivals at the bar, so a grabbed a beer and tried to make myself useful, helping set up the stage and all for the ceremony and party that followed.

I was there working away diligently, hanging crepe paper and running microphone wires across the floor, and didn't really notice when Nan arrived about half an hour afterwards. I only realized she was there when she called my name.  I turned from my work to find that she had not arrived alone - next to her stood a girl . . . quite possibly the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen in my life. She was young, no older than 22, with a lovely face framed by long, flowing golden hair and a tight little body that you could break rocks on, one that was perfectly proportioned in all the right places.
To quote one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, "Whatever you wanted, wherever you happened to be, she had it."

I'm sure at that moment I had a look of shock and awe on my face - that goofy look all guys get when they are suddenly faced with a smoking hot woman - but I quickly straightened out my features (at least, I thought I did) as I stepped towards my old friend and this angel that accompanied her. If Nan saw the look I had, she tactfully didn't mention it. What she DID do was introduce me to her friend - "I'd like for you to meet . . . " - well, for this story, let's call her 'Fiona'.

I have no idea what sort of noises stammered out of my mouth as I shook Fiona's hand - I can only hope that what I said was semi-coherent and not flecked with the spittle and marbles that suddenly seemed to fill my mouth. Yes - she was just THAT flabbergastingly beautiful. To cover my stuttering, self-conscious embarrassment at being so near to this vision's gorgeous presence, I quickly offered to get both her and Nan a drink from the bar - if only to get away from Fiona for a few seconds and gather myself together.  I only bumped into two people while making my strategic, hazy, hasty retreat.

While I stood waiting for their drinks, my mind racing and heart thudding against my ribs, I tried to suss out why Nan had brought Fiona along to this dreary Navy event in this rather dingy little military bar. I couldn't for a moment fathom that Fiona was there for my benefit, and Nan was making a conscious, calculated attempt to throw the two of us together to see what might occur. I just figured that Nan had decided to bring an old friend along to her final NASU function, and everything else was just a figment of my overactive (and hopeful) imagination.

But to my mild shock and utter joy, I discovered as the evening wore on that Nan had brought Fiona along for PRECISELY that reason - to introduce her to me and possibly play matchmaker between the two of us. Unbeknownst to me, Nan had been 'talking me up' to her unattached friend in the days after my arrival in country, and Fiona was eager to meet me. I brought their drinks over and sat with the two of them for a while, and found myself chatting at length with Fiona; I found that she was just as funny and charming as she was beautiful. In no time at all, we were laughing and chatting away like we had known one another for years. I was attracted to her immediately - the whole person, not just the package. I began thoroughly enjoying her company and presence near me - so much so that I didn't notice when Nan slipped away and left the two of us together alone (heh - that sly lady . . . what a friend!).

At one point during the Hail and Farewell, I had to get up on stage with the NASU Commanding Officer to be introduced and to say a few words. That briefly left Fiona by herself at our table. I was savvy enough to notice during the time we'd spent talking together the furtive, hungry glances directed at her by some of the other attendees, so I knew that the 'wolves' would be pouncing the moment I left her by her lonesome (I personally think that that's a cardinal violation of the unwritten "Code of the Guys" that men live under, but that's neither here nor there . . . ). As I stood and did my thing, I watched as the first would-be snake slithered over to make his move. In no time at all, Fiona had sent him scurrying away; she apparently was an expert at that sort of thing - not only putting the guy in his place, but also serving notice to the rest of the pack that she was there with me for that evening. After that, I couldn't help but like her more and more.

After the main events, everyone hung out at the Southern Lights for the after-party. Fiona and I mingled for a bit, then went back together to the bar's game room. We played shuffleboard as a team against two other NASU guys (I can't remember if we won or lost - frankly, it didn't really matter much to me at the time). And we shot pool on the base table, where I had occasion to execute a textbook "guy" move on a pretty girl, the "teaching-her-how-to-hold-the-cue-and-aim-at-the-ball" routine, with me standing behind her, holding her close in front of me.

After a while, the party at the Southern Lights began breaking up, so I threw caution to the wind and asked this lovely woman out to dinner with me that evening. She eagerly accepted, which pleased me to no end. We took her white station wagon down the main drag into downtown Christchurch, and ended up eating in the dining room of the Rydges Hotel, hard by the River Avon - the swankiest place I knew of in my limited access into the city. During our dinner, and in fact during that entire night, she was as sweet and delightful a person as I'd ever met in all my life.

After dinner, she drove me back to my temporary accommodations, a corner suite at the Airport Gateway Motel off of Memorial Avenue, and we said our good nights with a handshake and a quick peck - but not before I managed to wrangle her phone number and a promise of a second date out of her (I say 'wrangle' . . . but I don't recall her hesitating very much . . . !). I walked into my Spartan little room that night, giddy about my future in Christchurch, and completely head-over-heels for this amazing girl. You dream about things like this coming to pass, and they rarely if ever do. However, when the impossible happens and lightning does strike - wellsir . . .

Fiona and I had our second date that weekend, and in the days and weeks that followed spent more and more time together. Before the month was out, we were firmly established as a couple. She all but moved into my temporary lodgings with me; I'd make her pancakes some mornings, and in the evening sometimes we would just stay in, snuggling on the couch watching "Shortland Street" or something else on one of the four New Zealand TV channels that existed at the time. She was fascinated by everything
'American' - our accents, our customs and holidays (she attended her first Independence Day picnic at NASU on a wintery July afternoon - most of the activities took place in the base gym), and the foods from 'back home' that I could get at the small base commissary. Fiona became obsessed with things like Calistoga water, lima beans, Almond Roca and potato sticks (these especially!), things unfamiliar and unavailable in the world she'd grown up in.

And due to Fiona, I got my first full-scale immersion in this new land that was to be my home for the next couple of years. With her as my guide and driver, we went out and about. My first trips to Sumner, Lyttleton, the Banks Peninsula and Kaikoura were made with her. She showed me where to find the best local restaurants for Kiwi fare - from the extensive local wine selection at Saggio Di Vino to the steamed mussels at the Dux de Lux and the delicious desserts at Strawberry Faire. We did highbrow stuff - like attend a formal reception together for New Zealand military officers.  We did
lowbrow stuff - like race go-karts around a local track, and go to see cheesy dreck like Sommersby at the Hoyts 8 cinema. But mostly, we were just together, and had lots of fun with one another. And at that point in my life, it was all good.

My car finally arrived in late July (along with the rest of my household goods), and soon afterwards I moved into a little bungalow in Hoon Hay, a neighborhood near the southern edge of the city. Fiona was over a lot, and we'd spend time hanging out there enjoying one another's company, or she would go through my already voluminous music collection, playing whatever tickled her fancy.  I was working out at the NASU "Powerhouse" gym practically every day, hitting the weights or utilizing the recently-constructed glass-walled racquetball court. And most of the time Fiona would come along with me. We made quite a couple - arriving on base in my gleaming golden Porsche, and stepping out into the Powerhouse Gym parking lot, with her dressed in a form-fitting leotard. During some of our early visits there, she used the weights or stretched alongside me, and drew many a lustful eye in her direction. But soon she decided that she wanted to make use of the building's aerobics area, and asked if I could make her a mixtape of songs she selected from my collection to work out to.

One of the first songs she selected for me to tape for her was a tune I'd introduced her to a few weeks earlier, "Push Th' Little Daisies" by Ween. She loved this song so much, that it was usually one of the first things she'd put on the stereo when she came over my place; she'd bounce around the house while the band belted out their insanely, annoyingly catchy tune:

Ween was formed in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1984 by two misfit junior high school students, Aaron Freeman and Michael "Mickey" Melchiondo, Jr., who met in 8th grade typing class. They initially didn't like each other, but soon found that they had a lot in common, socially and musically. They began jamming together (both were multi-talented instrumentalist, with a penchant for the absurd), and soon formed the band Ween, an abbreviated version of the common schoolyard portmanteau rank-out word "weenis" (combining "wussy" and "penis"), adopting the respective personas of "Gene Ween" and "Dean Ween". During their remaining years in junior high and high school, Ween produced a series of self-released home recordings on cassette (with names like The Crucial Squeegie Lip and Erica Peterson's Flaming Crib Death). They also gained a loyal audience playing shows at local New Hope bars.

Soon after their high school graduation in 1989, Ween was signed to Twin/Tone Records, and released their first album, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, the following year. Their second long-player, The Pod, quickly followed in 1991.  Both albums were eclectic, quirky, musically adventurous - and virulently non-commercial. Yet somehow, they sold. Ween was part of that strange early-90s alternative 'avant-garde', almost comedy-rock genre, which included bands like King Missile and The Dead Milkmen, whose music featured vocal distortion, humorous lyrics and excellent musicianship. Like those other groups, Ween became a semi-popular cult band . . . so much so that label giant Elektra Records came calling. Elektra actively courted them, and ended up wooing them away from Twin/Tone in the summer of 1992.
Pure Guava, Ween's major label debut, was released in the late fall of 1992.  The local alternative station, WHFS, began playing "Push Th' Little Daisies" to death, and I thought it was so great that I ran out to buy the album. It took me a while to work up to exploring Pure Guava in depth, beyond the hit single - I found most of the first few songs I heard just too weird, even for me; full of high- or low-pitched vocals and highly manipulated, out-of-tune sounds.  But with a little persistence, I delved deeper, and discovered that as 'weird' as it was, practically the entire album was excellent. Songs I especially liked included "Little Birdy", "Big Jilm" and "Poop Ship Destroyer". But the standout tune on Pure Guava, for me, was "Sarah", a rare moment of restraint and seriousness on the album. Gene croons a soulful paean of love for the aforementioned girl, accompanied only by Dean on slide guitar: 
"When I find you in your sleep, Sarah
I will tell you what you mean to me,Sarah
I know this big world ain't always what it seems, Sarah
Forever may I love you, and forever may you dream, Sarah
When I find you in your sleep, Sarah
I will tell you what you mean to me, Sarah"
The result was an effective, emotive, authentic country song - not something that anyone would expect from this group in 1992, but a foretaste of Ween's later forays into the country genre, the high point of which being their 1996 album 12 Golden Country Greats, recorded in Nashville with a bevy of celebrated C&W veterans.

In addition to "Push Th' Little Daisies", I put a lot of other HI-NRG dance-type stuff onto Fiona's workout tape. But the Ween song was the tune she loved and played the most. Ween put out a total of eleven studio albums during their lifetime, along with six live albums and numerous singles. But frankly my interest in the band waned considerably after Pure Guava - not for any particular reason, mind you. I just moved on musically to other sounds, and after a while stopped paying attention to what they were up to. Their final album was La Cucaracha, released in 2007.  The band broke up only just last year, after nearly thirty years together. 

Ween lasted a lot longer than Fiona and I did. Within a year, we had gone our separate ways. I'll spare you the details . . . other than to say that the fault for our breakup was entirely my own. I behaved abominably, and did things that hurt her feelings and drove her away from me. It's not something I'm especially proud of; in fact, to this day, it embarrasses and hurts me to think about it. Through my own fault, I lost the affection of a wonderful girl. After years of estrangement and bitterness between us, Fiona finally forgave me and I made amends. We have both left New Zealand and live on opposite sides of the world, and although I haven't been in her immediate presence in over fifteen years, we still speak with each other regularly and have become good long-distance friends.

I try not to dwell too much on the "what might have been" with Fiona - that's a fool's game. I am happy with the way my life has turned out up to this point, and would happily retain the certainty of my current position and happiness for the more unknown life I might have had with her, had we stayed together.  Sometimes, however, thoughts along those lines do creep into my mind . . . but I quickly try to think about something else. With that being said, I did enjoy the time I had with her.

When I look back and recall those wonderful golden days with my beautiful girlfriend in that faraway country, a romance which began twenty years ago this very day, I don't think much about the places we travelled or the grand things Fiona and I did together. I think about the more private, personal times we shared - sitting side by side on the couch, eating potato sticks and watching TV movies at her place; going out for pizza at Winnebago's downtown; sitting on Sumner Beach, just watching the waves; driving out to Akaroa with the sunroof open . . . and of course, watching her joyfully jump around the living room while Ween played through the speakers at top volume. Nowadays, I can't help but think of her, every time I play that stupid, annoying . . . and utterly joyous song.

Here it is for you to bounce around to, too: Ween's Pure Guava, released by Elektra Records on November 15th, 1992.  Enjoy - and as always, let me know what you think. 

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