Recirculated from F.U.N.K., an online home for the writing of Neil Kulkarni.
Read more of the A New Nineties: A U.S. Edition here
You should know better . You’ve been here long enough. Wasn’t it back in 31 when you hopped the Idlewild on Rose Island and stowed away to Louisville, the Fontaine Ferry Gun Shy still ringing in your ears? They changed her name to Avalon and you still hung on, through the floods of 37 and the winds of 74 and here you are, in 1992, about to get hit by a train, a creaking hulking stealthy truck of wonder called ‘Rusty’. You should know better than to be over Floyd’s Fork Creek this time of night. Unique acoustics round here. You can’t hear the trains coming. You won’t see the Pope Lick Monster til the last moment. Till his syphilitic blue eyes roll over white . . . .blue over white, water over foam over water over foam and the deluge keeps on coming: rotate yourselves downriver and ask what is it about this place that means the music it makes is so clear, so engulfed, so utterly out on its own? You may have been told that Louisville sounded like Squirrelbait first and then sounded like ‘Spiderland’ afterwards, but ohh what a withered reductive way to hear this city’s music, this city that for the bulk of the 90s was making some of the most fascinating American music of all. Forget Spiderland, for a while at least, stop its bullying presence and it’s easy digestion as totem of post-rock seminality. Eternally love ‘Rusty’. For its suggestions haven’t been wrung dry, its wonders not fully explored, its poise and poetry and perspective still intact, unravaged by bad-copyists and the stultifying stasis of being in the cannon. This is music yet to be discovered, fresh, vital, stimulating, new-fangled, radical, raw, novel, every time you hear it.
Rodan were formed in Louisville Kentucky in 1992. You could call them punks but they were also into making hip-hop, found-sound collage, industrial music, classical music, films, theorems, art both moving and static, everything. They made a cassette-only demo in 92 called ‘Aviary’, including some ambient weirdness, then re-recorded the songs from the demo for their one album called ‘Rusty’ in 1994, made a Peel Session and then split. That’s next to nothing to go on so you’ve no option but to listen and try to figure this magic out. They made music with humility, played live incessantly, had only the most tangential and hostile relationship with rock’n’roll, let everything they’d ever heard, seen and loved up the ante on what they made. Their music was both immense and intimate, immortal and life size. The power they exert over those who’ve heard them is still as livid as it was when they were extant. ‘Rusty’, especially for those of us who never got to see them live, is a large part of that still-tangible mystery. It’s one of those rare, remarkable records that seems to tear a hole in the fabric of ‘reality’ and point eagerly at what seethes beneath & behind, as if to say “look, see? This is what’s REALLY happening”. As such it was, and remains, an immortal revelation.
‘Rusty’ starts like a stream, a spring, lapping ripples over stone and soil, generating its own impetus gradually, gently surging, leveling out. Where ‘Bible Silver Corner’ takes you is a place where even the tiniest thing, a single-string guitar line, a wending bass, the space between working fingers and hearts and the silence that permeates through the sound mesh, can tune your melancholy and resignation to its own pace. Four and a half minutes in you sense trouble ahead, in the peripheries you hear the stirrings of something else, something low and lurching with menace. Told you, you should know better. This time of night. The train, “Spreading a rash of arsenic, magnolias and crushed coal/A fire in its heart will not let it die”. Shiner gurns in almost-metallic relief, grinding rails and gears past your too-close head, a two-minute takeover of you, too fast and too sudden and too unexpected even after you know it’s there, “PopPop! Down goes the enemy” the band holler, waving at you from the backboard, your consciousness smeared thin over the trundled tracks. So this is what Rodan can do. They can time-lapse, they can hold a moment between tick and tock and let you linger there, reach out and leisurely pull nature’s tendrils into your lap. But they can also make a day go by in the blink of an eye, accelerate you round blind alleys, place you at the frictive fulcrum of modern mechanics, the boiler room of the Avalon, the trellis over the creek, the switchback in the canopy. They have proven this in 9 minutes. The remaining half hour that ‘Rusty’ has you they’ll prove how they can do both at the same time.
“The Everyday World Of Bodies”is where Rodan really start suggesting to you that music is in new hands here, that the curious mix of personalities and abilities that makes up the band has led to something entirely unique. A flurry, a giggle, a cough, and then this almost arrhythmical new type of rhythm, pulled to the ground with a jackhammer relentlessness, a buzz saw riff but nothing you can cling to that seems to correspond with the normal architecture of rock. This is built with an almost industrial disregard for beauty, a civilly engineered construction meant to function as a tower for the torment being portrayed lyrically. And of course, in so doing Rodan create something truly beautiful and truly for the times they inhabited then and we still inhabit now. It’s that paradox at the heart of Rodan’s sound that’s crucial, that sense that the constituent parts in addition lead to a crazily out-of-proportion sum, the voices merely characters that wander through the factory, down to you whether their breakdowns, emotional & mental, are changing the music or whether the changing music is compelling their breakdowns, mental and emotional. 4 people conjuring a whole singular environment – like James Brown, like Suicide, like Minutemen, like Big Black, like Wu Tang Clan,what Rodan pursue is the ability for human beings, in collaboration, to come together with the implacable force of machines, all the better to artistically express our modern loneliness in this ongoing mechanization of life, all the better to unlock the true magic of feel, that ability for people to make the body move by fusing one’s own heartbeat with others.
This is why Rodan get so close to being some of the greatest American music ever – on ‘Bodies’, after two minutes, when it drops down to this gorgeous refraction of dappled-light and thrumming undertow yes it’s about Mueller and Noble’s guitars, the delicacy of the harmonics, the ebbing flow and shark-like constant motion of Tara’s bass, Coultas’ always-diamond-tight maneuvers between the beats (only American drummer to get close to Orestes, Scharin or Narcizo) – but there’s something ELSE you can hear, something you can’t trace to source so easily, something like the feedback of the world outside that studio, outside that room, somehow sneaking its way into the swell, that train again, head on into the headlights, and you should know better. Tara and Jeff whisper “You can trust it/This is your sound/ The clock’s unwound/ We make the sound/I will be there, I will be there I swear I will be there” and you’re left trembling, dependent now on what this band are doing, unable to leave, uncoupled from anything approaching comfort but a willing witness & accomplice now in this act, committed to riding Rodan’s wave all the way to whatever terminus they’re taking you to.
It’s no accident that at times in Rodan’s music you can hear things that aren’t there. Eventually you start putting them in there, humming cello parts, adding counter-harmonies. In the work all of Rodan would do after the band split these things they hinted at would be further explored. Rodan was the first solid band any of them were in. Self-admittedly they couldn’t play, couldn’t write songs, couldn’t get sounds out of what broken busted equipment they had. All of it had to be learned, made from the ground up. Louisville is not a swinging town, every night is not a party, consequently people who live there feel they have time to just create. All that lull-time leads to intriguing backwaters that bigger cities would’ve muddied and swirled into the need to be current and out there and part of a scene. Rodan became who they were on the quiet, and then when unleashed zeroed in on nothing but themselves. One thing that’s apparent from “Rusty”’s first moment is that Rodan have no problem with considering their music as art, as much a visual experience conjured by sound as an aural one. Rodan cared about sleeves, cared about feel and look, cared about moving you deeply. Never casual, never chaotic. Always every moment for a reason. An artists eye for detail, and an artists heart for meaning. Serious business, no matter how much a laugh they were having playing and touring. Serious business.
“Jungle Jim” (not the Hugo Largo cover you might’ve dreamt of but just as good) seeps forth with Tara singing weakly over a gorgeously downered opening melody heavily preminiscent of her later work with The Sonora Pine. Whenever melody clearly occurs on ‘Rusty’ it’s of an almost orchestral aesthetic, or at least seems to occupy the same fin-de-siecle post-romantic pre-modernist lines of Satie’s piano work, Debussy’s tone-poems, Bartok’s string quartets. When these ornate melodies give way to the unholy racket that Rodan could make all musical bets are off, there’s no safe ground, no root note, just surge, just fwd motion under tremendous funky duress and lashed with the fire of Noble/Muellers attack and Tara’s unforgettable voice, her lines veering ‘tween Plath-like morbidity & ravished love-confessional (“done with one touch lying on my thighs/ no i didn’t come/TOUCH ME HONEYFINGERS WENT INSIDE/you looked most tempting”) as the music underneath flits tween, unbridled desire, ash-flicking afterglow, post-fucked wreckage. And the song ends on a moment of silence, then the slow build of a drone, as chilling as the first 30 seconds of Throwing Muses ‘Colder’, that ebbs into ‘Gauge’. By now, Rodan are truly out on their own, shedding any relationship but the most tangential with ‘rock’, recalling Unwound at their most skin-puckeringly odd, lyrics a disturbing trauma-diary shot through with sedatives and nightmares, at the precise point an album should be aiming for redemption instead suggesting that only madness is liveable with, the guitars a tritonic mathematical mess of unsettling angles and angelic light. Closer ‘Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto’ starts on a bewitching gamelan tinkle and shimmer before gliding on another new dynamic, that sense of water and flow back again, like the album’s initial trickle finding the bay, able finally to lose itself in something wider than itself, ending up with a volcanic grinding rumble that sounds both troglodyte and cubist, a sound that doesn’t contain notes, only urges, has no rhythm, only impacts, only craters, all before you can realise why or how you’re being effected. And then, suddenly and forever, ‘Rusty’ is over.
And you’re left struck dumb. Wanting more. Wanting resolution. Wanting to hear nothing else. Perhaps even wanting to form a band. Too neat to say Rodan perfected themselves and thus had to be destroyed. Pure coincidence – varying rumours about mental problems & frictions within the band notwithstanding, in 1995, a year after ‘Rusty’ dropped, Rodan was over.
As we see so often in any look at the truly important American music of the 90s, one band leads to another and another and you’ve got to stay aware of what members do after the main event and the attention THAT got slipped on by. With Bitch Magnet, you go to Seam. With Codeine you go to Come but you’d also be demented to forget about what drummer Doug Scharin did after Codeine split cos then you’d miss out on his astonishing solo work as HiM (a truly odd dub side-project that ended up heard alongside equally odd mid-90s American instrumental hip-hop by the Crooklyn Dub Consortium & other freaks of the anti-industry like Ui) . . .
AND you’d be totally unaware of his Brooklyn-based crew Rex whose eponymous debut remains one of the great lost classics of 90s slow-core . . .
These trails are tangled but so rewarding, not just for completists. With all of the musicians we’ve looked at so far in A New Nineties American Edition, from Oberlin, from New York, from Louisville it’s crucial that you follow what they did AFTER what they’re mostly known for. In the case of Rodan this is doubly important because with June Of 44 and Rachel’s, Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller made music almost equal to Rodan’s in terms of shock, perhaps even surpassing Rodan in terms of wholeness and revelation.
“I am the one who has had an obsession with sailing for about five years and for me boats do represent archaic technology, things that die, things that get overlooked, things that pass away.” – Jeff Mueller.
June Of 44’s ‘Engine Takes To Water” initially reminded me so much of Slint’s ‘Good Morning Captain’ in its lyrical obsessions it was almost a guilty pleasure. Over the course of the album though it becomes much more than just maritime monomania, a briny blathering bruising beauty to be shackled to, to plummet the depths with. June Of 44 (the name refers to the period in which Henry Miller & Anais Nin engaged in their hottest correspondence) were made up of members of Lungfish, Rex, Rodan and Hoover and they played music of brutal heaviness, infinitesimally finessed precision and rampaging radiance. Dubbed ‘mathrock’ by the clueless, ’44 were propelled beyond such petty and inadequate categorisation by Scharin’s stunning drums, Mueller’s tremendously suggestive and evocative lyrics (further explored in the band Shipping News that he and Noble formed after 44’s demise) and the impossible-to-imagine near-prog painstakingness of the guitar arrangements – they’d make three more albums that mixed in electronica and jazz to their swirl and slam but nothing they’d ever make would eclipse ‘Tropics & Meridians’ (their second LP) and the still-astonishing ‘Engine Takes To Water’, one of the most beautifully packaged fully-realised visions in the history of American rock.
The cardboard it came in mattered, had an odour, a feel, a rub that matched the decaying antiquity and pristine drive of the music. That attention to detail, that attempt to make a record not just a document of sound but a fully engulfing experience that stretched from the look, feel, smell of the sleeves to the sounds contained theirin, reached it’s pinnacle with Jason Noble’s next project after Rodan, Rachel’s. Ongoing from 1991 as Noble’s solo project, gradually more and more Louisville artists and musicians became involved, Noble collaborating strongly with core members, violist Christian Frederickson and pianist Rachel Grimes. Their debut, 95’s ‘Handwriting’ was a gorgeous, fragile, plaintive mix of minimalist and classical instrumentation combined with a rock-band backline but it was their second, incredible album, ‘Music For Egon Schiele’ that really crystallised something entirely unique from this free-floating pack of freaks. Here’s what I said in 1996, from the Melody Maker:
Music For Egon Shchiele
“One has to realise what restraint it needs to express oneself with such beauty. Every glance can be expanded into a poem, every sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, joy in a single breath, such concentration can only be found where self-pity is lacking in equal measure”- Arnold Schoenberg.
Rachel’s “Handwriting” LP, 13 infinitely evocative songs without words but with plenty of orchestration, was THE great lost underground American classic of 1995. Such gorgeous shocks are never repeated. Here they’re surpassed, “Songs For Egon Schiele” is, if anything, even more of a unique delight. It is, in a word, incredible.
This suite of pieces was written for a piece of dance and theatre based on the life of Schiele, performed in Rachel’s home town of Louisville. But, for a piece so specific in it’s reference, you find your mind running further than you’ve felt it in years. I want my retirement to sound like this; while it’s on, I can’t stop thinking about my childhood.
More minimal than it’s predecessor (Rachel’s are now often pared down to just strings and piano) this LP, from it’s stark opening to its sparse, shattering coda, is a million miles away from the implicit superiority of most “classical” music.
Rather than being concious that you’re listening to Something Without Guitars Or A Beat, you’re so instantly transported within your own imagination that within a minute you’re locked into its spell, the piano lacing fingers over your spine, the cello and violin filling out the sound, picking out melodies that seem to suffuse the room with changing moods as they wind their way around you.
Dark, mournful at times; even though training and the like are probably involved, I prefer to think of Rachel’s as writing these pieces like pop songs and then tearing them light years from the moorings of band and noise and letting them float free in the emotional chiaroscuro that only these instruments can create.
It’s less important that this is the most impossibly moving American record you can hear right now, or even that the care in it’s recording and exquisite packaging make it feel like a personal gift to you . IT IS). What’s important, what’s overwhelming, is that your room can be a constant stage with this record. Be ready for your close-up and let your mascara run.
There’ll be no stopping it.
Perfect and unafraid. Let it in.”
I still stand by every word of that, and urge you to hear it if you haven’t. And despite my youthful purple-ponciness of expression something deeper emerges over time listening back to Rodan, June Of 44, Rachel’s, something beyond mere artistry and taste. What the Louisville bands all did was crucially not just informed by aesthetics but informed by attitude – in an era in which bands from America were trying to reconjure the 70s and bands in the UK were still trying to resurrect the 60s, bands like Rachel’s were engaged in something entirely different, trying to reconnect with a spirit of suprising modernity, & elegiac clarity more akin to the artistic impulses of Post WW1 Europe than anything so dead as the recent past. In so doing they not only isolated themselves from the prevailing grunge/metal impulses in American music but they posited a way of working that now seems curiously ahead of its time – small dedicated groups of artists working together across multiple artistic disiplines to create their own cottage-industry of perfection, records that were utterly unconcerned with place in any lineage but totally concerned with YOU, and your multi-sensory relationship to what you were hearing.
It’s a tempting old habit to try and see something in relation to the mainstream it both reflects, reacts to and rejects but really the Louisville bands weren’t some last-gasp attempt to save rock, or recalibrate it for a new future. They were an attempt to create entirely new music, and not even worry about that music’s place, not just afterwards, but EVER. Lots of bands say they don’t care – about other bands, about authority, about fitting in, about success – and it’s always transparently obvious that in their denials they’re masking their insecurities and entirely conventional yearnings. Rodan, June Of 44 and Rachel’s were revolutionary, and seem so eerily prophetic of those cabals and communities that fascinate us now in music because at a time when music was still so dependent on the conventions of the music industry they DID care about EVERYTHING other than what bands are meant to care about. Certainly, the times they emerged in had the feeling of running down, of the great countercultural and creative surge that was post WWII popular music reaching a point where it had nothing more to say, its craft becoming nothing more than reassemblage. Alot of rock fans simply abandoned guitar music, or in my case got my jollies from metal way more than anything you’d call ‘indie’. Crucially though, however vague the Louisville bands’ awareness of rock’s dead-end might be, it never seemed to be what was animating them. You’d get these records from out of the blue and have to figure out what they meant, where they fitted, and frequently you’d end up transported by bliss to you know not where. In the ongoing battle for music’s heart and soul, these bands were reclaiming playfulness, innocence and creativity without any kind of ideological impetus behind those decisions, without a masterplan or a strategy or anything that could get in the way of the naivete of that expression. And because of that innocence, they left some of us auld cynics, in the mid 90s, wondering how we’d ever listen to rock’n’roll again, beginning not to care if we ever heard indie rock again.
The band I want to talk about next left us in no doubt. It was all over. And something new had to be mapped out. Something so distant from rock that to even mention conventional rock in relationship to it was absurd. Unique. Undimmed. And unlike the Louisville bands, nearly entirely forgotten. Labradford.
This piece is dedicated to Jason Noble, 1942 – 2012. You can download a tribute mixtape to Jason here http://jasonnoblebenefit.bandcamp.com/ – all proceeds go to his family.