Desaparecidos – Read Music, Speak Spanish (2002)

How we managed to get through the Occupy Movement, not to mention all of the continued distrust and anger aimed at Corporate America, without a single album to define the moment escapes me. Maybe escapes me isn’t the best choice of phrase. Bother is better. Yes, it bothers me. We have plenty of indie and mainstream musicians in the Seinfeld tradition who sing about nothing. What we don’t have is a new voice.

There are the veteran voices, like Bruce Springsteen and the not as veteran voices, like Ted Leo who take a more informed view of the world. But the young ‘uns? Forget it. There are pictures of dinner to take and impractical crafts to make. Why spend time with real world problems when there’s a coffee cup in need of a knit cozy? Why spend time on mundane things like income inequality when you could be having fun making your voice sound like a robot and making your debt-digging $3500 synthesizer sound like a cheap Casio salvaged from the parents basement?

There was a time when serious times produced serious music as a counterweight to our pop culture fantasies and we don’t have to go back to the time of Reagan or further back to the Vietnam War to find proof. The album which best captures the age of corporate felony and income inequality was released by the Conor Oberst side project, Desaparecidos in 2002, during a time when popular music had its own distractions. There was not only a war on terror but a battle of who can make the best (worst) song about America kicking ass.

Shit wasn’t right and Oberst was pissed. The doomy, introspective lyrics of those early Bright Eyes release had given way to pointed accusations and bold condemnations of the American dream delivered by a man audibly shaking with agitation and what had to be a spittle covered microphone. Shit job? Check. Stuck in that shit job? Check. The American dream becoming more and more unattainable? Check. A different set of rules for the moneyed class? Check. It sounds just like 2013 except Read Music, Speak Spanish documents the lure of the housing bubble and not the rubble left behind after its collapse.

In retrospect, one can see how Read Music, Speak Spanish failed to properly ignite, when given a political climate which condemned anyone who dared question the America kicks ass narrative, and especially since it was released at a time when Oberst’s other, better known project, Bright Eyes, just began to gain a wider audience. Plus, America is the greatest nation ever. That point is worth repeating.

There’s no such excuse, however, for ignoring the message of Desaparecidos today. All of the problems so keenly articulated in 2002 became reality for so many more people as the Bush presidency wound down in 2008. People got fucked over by big business and big banks, royally. People are still getting fucked over by big business and big banks. The separate rules for the moneyed class still exist. Have we forgotten the Romney campaign already? What if I were to throw in a picture of last night’s dinner? I made a vegetarian tamale pie and in the picture you wouldn’t know I over did it with the chiles. Would you wake up then?

Birds of Maya – Ready to Howl (2010)

Spacin’ – Deep Thuds (2012)

The weirdo blues-rock scene of Philadelphia goes much deeper than Kurt Vile and the Violators and Adam Granduciel’s War on Drugs and these two albums: Birds of Maya’s Ready to Howl and Spacin’s Deep Thuds, are exhibits A and B for why you should be paying attention to this tight-knit group of musicians from the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Ready to Howl is basically one four-sided argument as to why Mike Polizze, a frequent collaborator of Vile’s and front-man of Purling Hiss, should be considered of the greatest underground guitarists of modern times. With bassist Jason Killinger and drummer Jason Leaphart in tow, Pollize showcases an unnatural ability to freely move between garage rock stomp, punk fury, glam flamboyance, old home blues, New York noise and grunge sludge. It’s as if he’s heard the same albums as you and I have, but his brain processed them differently. Instead of clear separations between genres, all Rock and Roll history has been melted into one era.

Spacin’, meanwhile, is the vehicle of Birds of Maya bassist, Jason Killinger. Both Polizze and Leaphart make appearances, of course. I didn’t add that tight-knit community comment without a little research. Scan the liner notes of releases by The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Birds of Maya, Purling Hiss, and Spacin’ and you’ll see how many of the same names keep popping up. And like much of Purling Hiss’ recent output, Deep Thud condenses the weirdo blues movement into more manageable chunks. It’s got the same blown-out aesthetic as Birds of Maya and the same time machine approach of inspiration (with added references to krautrock, more explorative forms of psychedelic rock and even a nod to blaxpoitation soundtracks) but not the fifteen minute run times of Ready to Howl. Did I neglect to mention that Ready to Howl is four songs over four album sides?

Redd Kross – Teen Babes From Monsanto (1984)

Most cover collections are disposable by nature. Like the greatest hits collection and live album, they’re often used to run out a recording contract. Redd Kross’ Teen Babes From Monsanto is the rare exception. By taking on such diverse artists as Bowie, The Stones, Kiss and The Shangri-Las, this still young punk band from LA crafted a path forward for themselves where they could mature past bubble gum and pop culture references, but still have fun.

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

“Down by the Water,” may have been the single from To Bring You My Love –  It got radio play and MTV play by portraying English howler, PJ Harvey, in a more gentle light, but it’s not the track that has me coming back to this album time and again. No, that would be rightfully named, fuzz beast, “Meet Ze Monsta.”

There are multiple live versions of PJ Harvey performing “Meet Ze Monsta” on Youtube, including one from Glastonbury where Polly Jean is in a tight pink jump suit. It’s there if you want it with shaky camera and all. I prefer the 120 Minutes version, because you know me, I’m keeping the dream of the ’90s alive in Cleveland.