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.
Class M Planets – Ravenswood (Treefort Lounge)
I’ll be honest — Class M Planets’ new LP, Ravenswood, took a minute to get into. I heard “psychotropic album,” and I was expecting something a little different. More early Pink Floyd, less mid-period Flaming Lips is what I think of when I hear that descriptor, but that’s on me, not on whomever described the album.
The Portland project of vocalist/guitarist Adam Goldman, Class M Planets’ sound hearkens right back to that period of music when a band like the Polyphonic Spree could have a radio hit and baroque arrangements could combine with heartfelt declarations and college rock vocal delivery. It’s the ramshackle sound of a musician who can draw from the Beach Boys and Neutral Milk Hotel while not sacrificing anything of himself.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this on a rainy, overcast day, rather than one filled with blazing sunlight, but Ravenswood seems to make more sense to me now. Watching the blue marble LP spin on the turntable, while the loping country folk of “Liquefied” plays through the speakers or the cello on “Easy” cuts straight through my heart, this a record which took a few listens to really catch me. Once it did, it lodged its way into my heart.
Goldman describes himself as “almost a reformed cynic,” and it’s that sense of positivity, tempered by a past sense of self which really calls out to me. These are songs which can be seen as sad or hopeful, depending on where you are in your life and what you need at the moment.
Swallow Sperm – Totally Fucking Gay (Self-released)
Abrasive, aggressive, and unapologetically queer, Totally Fucking Gay’s latest makes Gayrilla Biscuits’ Hung Queens Can Suck It sound like pop. Full of angular sounds and jagged riffs, with lyrics which are bluntly descriptive, Totally Fucking Gay challenges the listener with experimental sounds. To be quite honest, it really depends on how much you can handle Kneepad Nikki’s delivery, which is a mix between Jello Biafra’s delivery on the breakdown of “California Uber Alles” and Biafra’s spoken word stuff. It’s funnier, though.
The group really runs with the idea of droning noise riffs layered on top of simple slapping beats, with lyrics that run the gamut from “I Don’t Know Anyone Who Is Straight” and its “media silence can be bought” to “Swallow Sperm,” which starts out with “Cock cock cock cock cock.” They contain multitudes, is what I’m saying.
The simplistic delivery, coupled with the stream-of-consciousness lyrics and winding instrumentation, left me feeling like I was listening to Mickey Avalon cover Wesley Willis songs. Or the other way around. I dunno. It’s definitely fun, it’s certainly confrontational, and the same can be said for Mike Diana’s artwork. He’s certainly no stranger to controversy himself. Here, the artwork is rendered both as a folded poster which functions as the packaging for the CD, as well as a series of six 7-inch sized risograph prints. The prints blow up the imagery and, using neon colors, turn the cartoonish into the garish.
It’s an assault of the aural and the visual senses, and it is A. LOT. TO. TAKE. IN. Still, the best artwork forces you to confront to confront things, right? If you can handle Peaches singing “Suckin’ on my titties,” but can’t take “I will fuck any well hung fellow,” then maybe you might need to see where your prejudices lay, hmm?
Forgotten Bottom – Hostile Architecture (Black Horizons)
Named after the design concept in which elements are chosen especially for their ability to keep people from hanging about — bumps on benches to prevent sleeping, walls or fences to keep you off the grass, et al — Forgotten Bottom’s latest cassette is the sound of a coming storm. Inspired by “Watching a city you love and grew up in become gentrified and developed beyond recognition over the decades,” among many other things, the music of Eric Bandel and Myles Donovan is timeless.
These are pieces which could have been written centuries ago on Mediterranean islands, or they could have been recorded just last year. You could give me either explanation and I’d believe it without hesitation. Forgotten Bottom’s music drones and lilts, the soundtrack to someone moving into your neighborhood, driving out the corner store with the adorable cat, and replacing it with a CVS that doesn’t sell smokes.
The viola is an instrument I usually equate with sadness, but hearing the bouzouki playing something other than upbeat songs took a minute to sink in. Once it clicked, I was able to appreciate the counterpoint of that instrument playing what are, essentially, blues and the whole thing made sense. This is the music of the people — blues, folk ballads, laments — who have been moved and removed since time immemorial, and which is them crying out for a chance to settle, for once, and to live in peace.
The packaging is lush: “black and neon green ink offset printed on gray linen stock” j-cards, inside gold-backed cases in an edition of 75 copies on clear blue tapes with silver labels. Again, I like the idea of taking the cassette, arguably the most humble way to distribute music physically, and dressing it up, and making the music important.
Jaki Shelton Green – The River Speaks of Thirst (Soul City Sounds)
The build of this record is just phenomenal. North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green has never released an album before. Here her voice and words are on full display. Though there are some sounds here and there, along with vocal appearances by guests, it is Green upon whom the focus is made. She spins tales inspired by America’s racist past and confronts things head-on.
As David Menconi’s very excellent biography on the back of the LP jacket states this record is “[h]ard but not hopeless,” with “freedom as its central theme and most-repeated word.” As I said, the build is phenomenal, with each start starting out with a whisper and building into a loud proclamation. The first side sees Shirlette Ammond, a singer/rapper who counts Green as a major influence, turning “A Litany for the Possessed” into a firey number, and the second ends with Green and singer Nnenna Freelon doing a call-and-response on the title track.
Even when soft-spoken, almost a murmur, the poet’s voice commands your attention with its richness and inflection. This is not mere recitation. She is reading her words, speaking her words, and bringing them to life. I was torn between whether I wanted to listen to this on speakers at the loudest volume I could muster, or whether I wanted to bring Green in closer with headphones. I did both. I recommend you do, too, as there’s much to be gained from both experiences.
The record jacket and center labels look like this could’ve been released in the late ’60s on some obscure jazz label, devoted to elevating voices to the nation at large. Really, that’s what Soul City Sounds has done here. Not only do you get new work from Jaki Shelton Green, but you get it in a new way, and it’s powerful.