Analog Adventures: Let’s get weird

I get a lot of random records, tapes, and books in the mail, because publicists forget that outlets for which I used to work aren’t around anymore, or someone finds the address hidden on my website, or… whatever. This is a way to keep them from piling up uselessly in the corner of the office.

Is it possible for an album to be too chill? Maybe when Early Day Miners’ Placer Found was originally released 20 years ago, such a thing was possible, but listening to this anniversary edition of the band’s debut release, it seems that the band from Bloomington, Indiana, was positively prescient when they first released it on Western Vinyl in 2000.

A quote from Charlie Hall of The War on Drugs opens the press release included with the double vinyl LP:

“A whisper awash in celestial din, Placer Found establishes the sonic and emotional palette that would come to define Dan Burton’s work as Early Day Miners. This is music that rewards patience, and reveals itself more with each listen. There’s a deep clarity within the soft focus – equal parts lost and found. Everything in its right place. We need this music now more than ever.”

Revisiting this record after nearly two decades reminds me that there was a time when slowcore was almost considered a derogatory term, and the slow country burn of Placer Found‘s closing track, “Desert Cantos,” was joked about as “bathroom break” music for college radio. Strange to think that David Pajo would release Papa M’s Hole of Burning Alms just four years later and include a 16-minute instrumental jam on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and none of my friends would bat an eye. Placed in the conext of M83’s droning “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” most of the tracks on Placer Found sound positively intense.

The fact that the War on Drugs’ Hall was picked to blurb this record is telling, given that his band is exactly the sort of act which has really taken Early Day Miners’ slow and melodic sound even further. Placer Found has also found its reissue home via Secretly Canadian, a label which is no stranger to slow, quiet, introspective music – see also ANOHNI, Songs:Ohia, and Taken By Trees. It’s as if the band was too far ahead of their time, and it’s taken the rest of the music world the last 20 years to catch up to the idea that music doesn’t have to be mile-a-minute or overly-ornate to evoke heartbreaking sorrow.

In addition to the seven tracks from the original album, side D of this anniversary vinyl debut sees the addition of two unreleased tracks, the instrumentals “Prospect Refuge” and “Blue Casino.” It’s a gorgeous release, and the cover image seems even more isolationist when blown up to 12 by 12. The gatefold image really brings to home the prairie locale of the band’s original home, and if you’ve ever seen the video for “In These Hills,” it’s as if the 8mm black and white footage had a frame plucked from it at random.

Early Day Miners’ Placer Found is available from Secretly Canadian.

Another reissue, courtesy of Portland’s Jackpot Records, is the very hard to find, obscenely obscure progressive rock album Demo Press from Chicago’s Seiche. Originally released in 1981 in an edition of of only 50 copies, this is the sort of crazy LP which fetches mad money on the secondary market. It’s weird, because when I think Chicago in 1981, I’m thinking the Fix or the Necros – Touch & Go Records hardcore bands – not about prog rock.

Still, here we have a band that got together, woodshedded for a year, recorded an album in two sessions, mixed it in one, played one show, and then disappeared. It’s the perfect storm of crate-digging nerdery, bolstered by the fact that it’s as good as it is unknown. These takes were all recorded live with minimal overdubs, meaning that the spontaneity of the band is captured, but it also represents the band’s limitations. The vocals of both guitarist Steve Zahradnik and bassist Tom Vess are almost painfully flat at times, but thanks to the miracle of prog rock’s extended jams, they’re minimal in the grand scheme of things.

The record is undeniably funky at times, with Vess’ bass work in perfect lockstep with the innovative drumming of Marc Levinson. Additionally, some of the songs almost seem to look forward to the more angular aspects of college rock which would appear in the later half of the decade. Before “Evidently Me” turns into a Yes-style, bass-fueled rollercoaster in its latter half, the song features a churning guitar line which wouldn’t have been out of place on anything from the early years of Sub Pop. Other intros fall into this pattern, really, including “Islands,” but the highlight of Demo Press is the psych-metal groove of “Dissonant Toys,” marrying as it does the choppiness of early Black Sabbath with the ride of King Crimson.

The progressive elements are interesting, especially as each song has a tendency to really lean into that aspect in their second half, but the hard psych aspects are what really make this record more than just a curiosity. Coming out a solid decade after any of this music was popular, it synthesizes the early, middle, and later eras of ’70s progressive rock into one vision, allowing both the experimental future and the blues rock roots to fuse into one complete sound. It’s certainly unique, and being able to get one’s hands by means other than hissy YouTube rips is an absolute joy.

The liner notes feature photos, handwritten lyrics, a complete history of the band, and even pictures of the original tapes – which were used to source this new pressing, allowing it to sound better than ever, thanks to the mastering by Kevin Grey. The audiophile pressing goes right down to the anti-static sleeve inside the jacket, allowing you to have a copy which will stand the test of time, much as the music has.

Seiche’s Demo Press is available from Jackpot Records.

Eric Bowr’s library music project, Broken Lamps, is one of those things which seemingly came out of nowhere for me with the arrival of the first release, 2018’s Turn Signals cassette, in my mailbox. I put it in and was absolutely stunned at the way in which the musician took the sounds of late ’60s and ’70s library music and put his own spin on it.

The first album was very synth, piano, and bass driven, leaning harder into the more experimental aspects of the genre, and when the follow-up (and first vinyl release), Kaleidoscope, came the following year, it was a much funkier and more Italian release, working somewhere in the midground between the music for giallo and poliziotteschi films.

Now, here we are with Broken Lamps’ third release, entitled Metropolis. Once again released on Bowr’s own label, Electric Nerve Music, this record continues Kaleidoscope‘s “retro urban counterculture” feel. This is very much a crime drama album, soundtracking cops and criminals battling it out on the rough streets of some unnamed city, with a strong emphasis on funky bass and using the wah-wah pedal as much as humanly possible.

However, it never quite grabbed me the way either of the first two LPs did. Don’t get me wrong – things like the flute on “Lord of the Bronx” or the theremin-like organ in “Pretty Sharp Things” are absolutely wonderful, and really make this hearken back to the age which it’s referencing. However, despite the arrangements being great, the synthesized versions of the horns on “Phantom Fire Weapon” and “Lord of the Bronx,” as well as the faux strings on “Private Dreams” sound too manufactured to work. They took me out of it, and made me think I was listening to an ’80s cheapo score trying to sound like library music, rather than the vintage real deal. It’s a minor quibble for most, but it really isn’t my bag.

Aside from those three cuts, though, this is really a bigger step forward for Bowr and Broken Lamps, and I really hope that the next albums sees the musician collaborating with some real horn and string players to go for the big and expansive sound for which he’s aiming. Given the fact that the LP looks and feels just like it came out of the KPM or De Wolfe collections, right down to some very excellent artwork from Adam Styles, it’s just a step away.

Broken Lamps’ Metropolis is available on Bandcamp or from Two Headed Dog.

Finally, if there was a record which blew my mind more than any other when it showed up at my house, it was the self-titled debut album from Tucson’s Trees Speak. For a band from Arizona to come out of nowhere and release a double LP on Italy’s Cinedelic Records is one thing, but this was also a packed edition on clear vinyl, with a 12-inch double-sided print, double-sided card prints, and two stickers in a limited edition of 250. I think they even threw in a button.

That was 2017, and it was with great excitement that I saw the band was finally dropping a sophomore LP this spring. It’s on yet another storied label – in this case, the British reissue purveyors Soul Jazz, who almost never put out new music. Yet, here we are with yet another album from Trees Speak, and Ohms is a doozy.

While the band’s debut was fairly experimental, Ohms is far more song-oriented, or at least as much as one can get when aiming toward kosmische musik. The album is a collection of shorter pieces of an ephemeral nature, with the longer tracks tending toward a more traditional song structure. It’s these numbers, such as opener “Soul Sequencer,” the wailing sax of “Blame Shifter,” and closing track “Octave Cycle” which anchor the album.

Despite all that, the album’s standout cut comes on the bonus 7-inch included with the album. The AA side, entitled “Witch Wound,” is probably the track I’ve gone back to most of all. If ever Goblin and John Carpenter met to jam, it would sound just like this. It’s progressive, it’s funky, and it’s creepily weird in a way that pushes all the right buttons for me. While the whole of Ohms is transcendentally excellent, this is a new path for Trees Speak, and I hope it shows where they’re headed next.

Trees Speak’s Ohms is available from Soul Jazz Records.

Nick Spacek
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