Monday, July 31, 2006

Sleepwalkers, storm clouds, tail-biters and transformation.

So, I've been sitting here, listening to Mother Of All Saints intently for a while now, staring at the album cover, and wishing that the two lovers caught mid-embrace on it would turn to me and explain what the hell to say about such a weird, murky chunk of 70 minutes and 23 tracks, but as of yet, no luck. It’s such a blurry head-fuck of an album that I’m not even sure those are lovers pictured on the cover…they could be preparing to eat one another’s faces off, I can’t tell for sure.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 didn't sound a like a five-piece band on Mother Of All Saints, they sounded like five different bands. These tunes were loaded up with even more trap-doors and booby-hatches than before, and with each band member (except drummer Jay Paget) contributing lead vocals, you couldn't be quite sure what was around the next bend. The Fellers had always been slippery shape-shifters, prone to sudden mid-song acrobatics and genre-shuffling, but here, it felt like anything could submerge from the swirl at any moment. It was best to just let it wash over you and not ask too many questions.

"He's suspended in dreams tonight," crooned Brian Hageman on the lurching, manic "Catcher", the third track in on Mother, and it's a predicament that could apply to the whole album, rather than just the song's subject. From beginning to end, Mother Of All Saints sounds like a fever-dream, delirious and sweaty and a bit hazy. I don’t know what the band were ingesting during the recording sessions for this beast, but it was certainly potent stuff, if nothing else.

(l-r: Anne Eickelberg, Mark Davies, Jay Paget, Brian Hageman, Hugh Swarts)

The characters in these songs are desperate people, clawing frantically out of the speakers, shaking you soundly, repeatedly. "Speak to me! About your holy! fucking! experience!" shrieks Anne Eickelberg on "Tell Me", as the song self-destructs and collapses around her in a shuddering frenzy. "Hornet's Heart" features a narrator who wishes to buy a spike "for planting hornets in the heart of my wife". He needs this because the wife, well, she's had "conversations with my darker side....and now she's left me with a poison mind". The song twitches and spins in tight, tail-biting circles as we're told, "I let slip I love her so, I'd cook her to keep her warm".

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 - Hornet's Heart (MP3, 192kbps, 3.7MB)

One of my other favorites from Mother Of All Saints is the surreal sprawl of "Wide Forehead". Everything here just clicks - the band sounds huge, hallucinatory and thunderous, but in a truly skewed way. "Flakes fill the air and the bug-eyed embrace is ours....a 2-D cloud tries to stop your heart."

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 - Wide Forehead (MP3, 192kbps, 5.8MB)

The band embarked on a U.S. tour with Sun City Girls in '92, and once back home, spent much of the following year keeping a low profile. The Fellers released only a single EP during 1993...but what an set of songs it turned out to be. Despite being just four tracks, Admonishing The Bishops is the Thinking Fellers at the absolute peak of their powers. Featuring a crude cover drawing of what appeared to be levitating skewers speared with marshmallows, the EP found the band sounding entirely transformed, refreshed, renewed and - unexpectedly- achingly beautiful at times.

The lead-off track, "Hurricane", a slow-burning creeper, sounded like nothing the band had ever done before....a dreamy, eerie hypno-lullaby with a storm-cloud of churning noise at its center, the track immediately let the listener know that they were in for a journey over these next four songs. Mark Davies' keening, spooked vocals cut through the drone like a laser beam, and the whole thing slowly untangled itself into near-stillness, a few times...and roared back to life, repeatedly, in a shimmering, warped billow of guitar-spray. Here was a tune to sleepwalk to. The band was in telepathy-mode here - there's such an effortless, weightless feeling to the music, but a tense, ominous undercurrent at the same time. I could be completely biased, sure, as I've been in awe of this song for the past 13 years, but it still gives me the chills when I listen to it, it's so fucking beautiful and cracked and odd. I hope you enjoy it.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 - Hurricane (MP3, 192kpbs, 8.6MB)

Eat This Grenade! will crawl from the sludge yet again next Monday, August 7th, with the third and final piece of our Fellers retrospective....Until then, be well, keep your ears happy, and get some rest, it's late.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Lay down and drown in this happiness...

I don't know about you, but every few years, I'll stumble across a band that completely turns my tastes and perceptions regarding music upside-down. I've always been fascinated by the flowchart of how one artist will lead you to another, and which sounds, once they've hit your ears, will send you off in unknown, unexpected such band for me, many years ago, were San Francisco's Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. Today's installment of ETG! begins a three-part special on the Fellers, as there's just too much to share in a single installment, and I didn't wanna overwhelm you all at once or anything...

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 had a huge impact on me when I first discovered them in the early 90's, as they literally sounded like nothing I'd heard before. Sure, they were a rock band, and had guitars at the core of their sound, but they also took cues from artists like Captain Beefheart and Zappa, being utterly unafraid to twist their songs inside-out, fuck with tempos and time-changes, and throw all sorts of freaky, funny psychosis into the mix.

The first seeds of the Thinking Fellers were planted when Brian Hageman, Mark Davies and Anne Eickelberg moved themselves from Iowa City (where they'd each played with bands such as Pink Gravy and Horny Genius) to San Francisco in 1986. Shoehorned into a one-bedroom apartment in El Cerrito, they began (according to their self-penned bio) consuming generic burgundy and listening to two different big-band radio stations simultaneously. Songs were written, noise was made, and an irate next-door-neighbor eventually forced them out of the garage and into the the Gilman Street Project, where they could make as much racket as they wanted . The trio was soon joined by Hugh Swarts and Paul Bergmann, previous bandmates from various Iowa City groups, and in a hasty scramble to name themselves before their debut show at Gilman, drunkenly pulled the moniker of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 out of their asses. They claimed they'd come up with "something better" for a band name. They never did.

In 1987, the five Fellers moved into a home together near a freeway overpass in Oakland, where they remained for the next three years. They also hooked up with longtime producer Greg Freeman, and put out their first release, a cassette entitled Wormed by Leonard. Their early recordings were chaotic affairs, jagged and unpredictable, with unexpected angles and terrifying moodswings. Ghostly one minute and feral the next, their songs were loaded up with fuzzed-out banjos, blasts of organ and chewy wads of distortion. The first thing I often think of when I hear the Fellers is disease, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. They simply sound infected. If a song could foam at the mouth and roll its eyeballs back in its head, then these early tunes were likely candidates for rabies shots.

The band released its debut album Tangle on their own label, Thwart Productions, in 1989, and were joined by drummer Jay Paget in 1990 after Bergmann departed due to family commitments. Another dense, weird batch of hallucinatory freak-outs, Tangle's standout was undoubtedly the white-knuckled dementia of "Sports Car", 5:18 of spittle-flecked, teeth-gnashing mania. Oh, and it's catchy as hell, too.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 - Sports Car (MP3, 196kbps (VBR), 7.5MB)

In 1990, the band signed to the then-fledgling Matador Records, and unleashed the cracked brilliance of Lovelyville upon their listening audience the following year. Here were fifteen chunks of sprawling, shuddering invention, and you even got a truly creepy cover version of Sugarloaf's "Green Eyed Lady" for the price of admission, too. Tacked onto the CD release was the 7-track EP, "The Crowded Diaper", featuring what some fans like to refer to as "Feller-filler": snippets of studio randomness, disconnected ramblings and atmospheric noodlings. Your appreciation of these kinds of scraps is probably pretty closely related to how funny you find either the sound of oboes/flatulence or titles like "The Wonderbread Display".

Here's a track from Lovelyville that shows off the Fellers doing what they do best, I'd say...sounding both fucking out-of-their-minds as well as surprisingly, unexpectedly beautiful. I don't even want to ruin the fun by heaping a bunch of wanky verbiage on top of it before it hits your ears, so I'm just gonna post the damn song and let you sort it all out yourself. Please listen carefully for the squawking seal barking before the song careens into its majestic slo-mo crescendo and lovely coda. It makes me laugh every time I hear it, even after all these years.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 - More Glee (MP3, 192kbps, 8.7MB)

We'll return on Tuesday, August 1st with another couple offerings from the Fellers, centering around their 1992-94 period, and featuring selections from the Mother Of All Saints double-LP, as well as the Admonishing The Bishops EP, which contains, in fact, my favorite song of all time.

See you then...!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat

Who else but Russell Mael could work a sweater, scarf and gloves on a German television rock program so effectively? Appearing on "Music Laden" in 1974, Sparks were Americans (from Los Angeles, California, specifically), who, like Scott Walker, and so many before and since, found success in Europe, while Stateside attention eluded them. Sparks were completely punk rock, before the fact, but without being "punk rock" at all, really. They genuinely seemed to be off in a weird, inspired orbit of their own, making them only that much more alluring and endearing.

Sparks were a teenage favorite of mine, and despite being introduced to them in the early 80's, I quickly forraged backwards and discovered their early-to-mid 70's sounded like nothing I'd heard before. Weird, hyperactive glammy stompers careened into frenziedly-operatic triple-genre-pileups, and all the while, Russell's spectacular, elastic falsetto soared majestically over the proceedings beneath. I still have a soft spot for the best of their 80's output (namely, Angst In My Pants, and especially Whomp That Sucker), but to me, their finest moment is undoubtedly 1974's Kimono My House.

Hidden away on the flipside of the first single from Kimono ("This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us") was the sparkling "Barbecutie", one of my favorite Sparks songs, and an often-overlooked classic in their catalogue. Starting with a churning bassline, and crashing into a great swirl of organ lashes and plinky-piano loop-de-loops, "Barbecutie" surges along deliriously, and features yet another acrobatic vocal performance from Russell. Pop doesn't get much more perfect than this for me...

Sparks - Barbecutie (MP3, 192kbps, 4.4MB)

For further investigation, I'd point you in the direction of Rhino's 1991 double-disc anthology Profile: The Ultimate Sparks Collection. Collecting 17 years of the Mael brothers' demented genius, from 1971's "Wonder Girl" to 1998's "So Important", there's something for everyone here...yet, inexplicably, it's currently out of print. As Ron and Russell are still cranking out the albums, touring, and finding themselves new generations of fans, even now, perhaps a much-needed reissue could be in order.