As Wallace Stegner long ago pointed out, Europe’s cathedrals are man made. Ours were made by nature. The Cathedral Group, Grand Teton National Park, a few weeks ago, alas. This view from the Horse Trail coming down from Cascade Canyon never gets old. Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph.
Our summer vacation is well planned, though on August 26th we are scheduled to be sitting up straight and paying attention at our work desk. Somehow we doubt we’ll be of much use that day, given the new Joe Boyd-produced Robyn Hitchcock album and Brill Bruisers by the New Pornographers will both have been released by the time we sip our first taste o’ joe. Yet we know already that the first album we will download that Christmas-in-August morn will be Ty Segall’s Manipulator, a double album — let that settle for a moment — that Uncut Magazine today declares is the definitive work by the 27-year old tyro. To say we can’t wait the three weeks ’til it is out slightly understates the facts.
Yesterday, we saw a list put together by GQ of the best albums of the Millennium to date. We eagerly looked… and found a grand total of one rock’n’roll album on the list that truly mattered. Lots of Kanye and Beyonce and JayZ, but the only album on the list that we would put on our own compendium was PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. This might lead you to believe that, since 2000, there hasn’t been a lot of great rock’n’roll music. That would be wrong.
It is true that we have had a problem since the odometer rolled over on 2000 to even come up with a proper name or description of the decade we are in, which is one reason why the Teens, or whatever it is we call this cohort of ten years following the miserably named Aughts, seems so shapeless. So inconsequential. People don’t even think of it as a proper decade, as if it has been one long continuum since the booster rocket fell off on December 31, 1999. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space, and of course no one up here can hear you scream. But if they could hear us… we would right now be sounding a lot like one of those girls in the old Ed Sullivan Show reruns when the Beatles hit the stage.
Yes, allow me to say that since 2010, we have been living in an absolute Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll, and it is largely because of three personalities: Ty Segall, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, and Tim Presley of Darker My Love and of course White Fence.
They will be seen on no such lists as those compiled by the hacks of the magazine stand. But any sentient being who cares about real rock’n’roll surely knows that, nearly halfway through the decade, the Teens are shaping up as at least as consequential as the ’90s, which was the best decade for music since the ’60s. (The ’90s were the ONLY decade since the ’60s when the era’s best and most important music could also claim to be among its most popular, with bands as disparate as Nirvana, R.E.M., Oasis and Blur accompanying less well-known but equally meaningful acts likes the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dandy Warhols, Whiskeytown, Spiritualized, Alejandro Escovedo, and Luna, to name a few, on any proper rundown of the era’s best music.*)
If you read lists like GQ’s, you would be forgiven for immediately wishing to down a bottle of Clorox and ending it all. But if you think about what pleasure has been handed down to us by Messrs. Segall, Dwyer, and Presley, there is hope. Better, there is a revelation, milords: this is a Golden Age.
Ty Segall is about to release his 7th album under his own name. That number doesn’t even include his work with Fuzz, and I don’t think it tallies his collaboration with Mikal Gilmore, or maybe even Tim Presley (Hair by Ty Segall and White Fence.) Seven of the most exciting fuzz-based, Beatles-infused, punk-rockin’ slabs o’ joy since the British bands dueled with X and our friends in the New York City-based post-CBs cohort to produce that glorious moment between 1978 and 1980, before it all began to go south again, only to pick up the pulse later in the decade with the advent of the Pixies…
John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees have produced so many great albums since 2010 that my playlist is two hours long. And Tim Presley, confused as he has sometimes been about the right medium through which to capture his muse… a slight man sprinting after Tinkerbell with a cup… who can also morph into a rock’n’roll buzzsaw when he hits the stage… has nonetheless released in just the past nine months a wicked live album and, as of last week, a spectacular White Fence studio album. Three obscure acts. A Golden Age.
Look, so far this decade, we have loved work by Capsula, PJ Harvey, the black ryder, Bob Dylan, BJM, Cat Power, Cosmonauts, Crocodiles, Dean Wareham, The Evens, First Communion Afterparty, Kelley Stoltz, Kurt Vile, Black Mountain, Magic Trick, Mikal Cronin, Neko Case, Parquet Courts, Phosphorescent, Quilt, Woods, Sleepy Sun, White Denim, and even Tame Impala. With all the bad vibes emanating from points near and far, we should settle down and settle in, for the ’10s or Teens or whatever we call it are producing some of the greatest music in the 60+ year history of rock’n’roll. There is a lot more crap out there, of course, and few of the bands named above are making a dent on the Big Lists by the Big Magazines. But in no small part due to three men, the aforementioned Segall, Dwyer, and Presley, when the real history… the secret history… of music in the new Millennium is written, it will be written in gold.
* We understand the argument that the ’70s, like the ’60s, had some of its best bands also turn out to be the most commercially successful. The Stones, Bowie, Led Zep, yeah, we get it. But since we think the truly best albums of the decade were by the Clash and Television and Brian Eno, and since none of them really were all that big commercially (the Clash didn’t become big in the US til 1980), we’re going to let our statement stand, if you don’t mind…
Since 2010, we’ve been tracking the Burlington, Vermont duo The Vacant Lots, whose status as opening act for Dean Wareham and the Brian Jonestown Massacre tells you a lot. Their sound is really a cross between Spaceman 3 and Suicide — electronic drones generated by machines, with guitar and vocals riding atop the Fritz Lang concoctions. Departure isn’t exactly what its title promises: it’s much of what you’d expect from the band’s earlier work, and is for this reason excellent, occasionally thrilling, and one of the summer’s highlights. If you heard “Never Satisfied” on the radio, you really might think that Jason Pierce and Sonic Boom had run into each other at an insta-studio and cranked it out — that’s a high compliment! We intend to listen to this one ’til our hard drive fails.
Keith Richards tells the story of how the hollow-sounding chords at the beginning of “Street Fighting Man” were recorded on a little cassette in a hotel room. We were beginning to get the feeling that if Tim Presley wrote such a masterpiece — he’s written others — he would have released that hotel output, never bothering to go into the studio. Thank Heavens the Stones had the good sense to release the song in its full sonic glory, studio treatment and hotel track, tinny chords and all. And thank God that Ty Segall — maybe that’s redundant — persuaded Presley to go into a studio to create For The Recently Found Innocent, because this seventh White Fence is a beaut.
We knew what Presley could do, not just because his band Darker My Love released Tulip Frenzy’s #1 album in 2010, Alive As You Are. And in 2012, Presley and Segall collaborated on Hair, which qualified as no less than that year’s 2nd best album. And then, after we complained for what seems like ever that we wished Presley would get out of the bedroom and take his talents to a proper studio and record with a proper band, not to mention straighten up and comb his hair etc., he closed out the year with a live masterpiece — White Fence’s Live In San Francisco, which made our Top Ten List(c). What a hootenanny that one is! Maybe the best punk rock record of the last five years! You could hear John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees chortling at the knobs, as he recorded Presley in all his barrre-chord glory. And now we can hear the impact of his friend Ty Segall, who plays drums and produces what is already apparent as the best batch of White Fence cookies to come out of the oven. Ever.
Whether he’s an introvert, or just likes the freedom of recording at home, the intervention by friends Dwyer and Segall to get Tim Presley to share with the world a better sounding version of the magic that takes place the moment he picks up a guitar is surely welcomed. We are done comparing Presley to Kurtz, gone up the river. On For The Recently Found Innocent he has brought his jangly guitar, his reverence for early Who and Kinks dynamics, his fondness for psychedelic chords, wispy vocals, the patchouli ambience… brought it all to a studio where Mr. Segall himself plays drums and marshals the Dolby hiss fighters to render this in damn near high fi!
If you think we’re enthusiastic about this, you’re right, and aside from dropping a big hint that you’ll hear more about this when it is time to lasso the best o’ 2014 into our little compendium, we should quit the writing about it and get back to nodding our heads to the beat. Yes, it has one. Tim Presley has recorded a proper studio album and White Fence can get the Spotify airing and due it is so solemnly owed.
Throughout this summer of triumphant European tours by both the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, our Twitter feed has been stuffed with the retweets of avid fans overflowing with excitement over having just seen one band or the other.
On a given July morning, you might see this retweeted by Anton Newcombe (band leader and skillful social media tour director of BJM):
Or this tweet posted by The Dandy Warhols:
Given that alternate nights at this year’s Austin Psych Fest were headlined by the two bands — famous for their friendship, rivalry, their frenemy status — and that day by day, as we would see these alternating reports on how great their shows each were the night before — the Dandys in Dusseldorf, the BJM in Oslo (or wherever) — a few days ago, on a long plane flight, we were compelled to re-watch Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s 2004 film that chronicles seven years of the two bands each struggling up the greasy pole of rock music success. Based on what we know about the two bands from just the Summer of 2014 — sold out shows across Europe, Anton/Brian Jonestown Massacre playing no doubt great sets featuring songs from their magnificent new album, Revelation… the Dandys bringing big crowds to their feet by playing mostly songs from their back catalog… how would Dig! hold up? What would viewing it ten years after its release be like?
Well, it’s not surprising that it is still so fine, so amazingly entertaining, still sad (watching the Anton Newcombe of those days, um, not succeed), still compelling. It remains one of the handful of really excellent movies ever made about rock’n’roll. The master narrative, for those who haven’t seen it, is that the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols were, in the 1990s, trying to revolutionize the world of rock music, and not incidentally, become huge. Courtney Taylor and the Dandys both worshipped and were exasperated by the unrelenting, unfocused genius of Anton Newcombe, who no matter what else was going on — fistfights on stage, drug busts by Georgia sherifs, editions of the band imploding mid-tour — was capable of getting BJM to create album after album of important and meaningful music. And while the Dandys got the big record contract, not all was groupies and cocaine in their world; they were subject to the machinations of a suppurating record industry, ultimately making fine records that were poorly promoted, even as they found a big audience, particularly in Europe, for their live shows.
Though it is narrated by Courtney Taylor, the movie is really the story of Anton Newcombe. Dig! is a chronicle of a genius whose career flounders due to his peccadilloes, urges and addictions, his borderline behavior — even as we repeatedly come to understand how, of the two bands, it is the Brian Jonestown Massacre that is jacked into the live wire of real rock’n’roll. Even when Peter Holmstrom of the Dandys is bitching about something that Anton has done to alienate them, the last sentence in each soundbite is some variation of, “And yet their music is just always that much more brilliant than anything anyone else can do.” The movie ends with Antone not quite as a young and beautiful as he was in the early scenes, still flailing away at success, as the rival Dandys have settled into a niche of creative and commercial success. Even though by 2004, BJM had released three score songs that will live forever, even though our record collection is fat with their multiple great albums, there was no sense of whether they would ever make it, and particularly whether Anton would survive from all the different ways he beat his head against the wall.
Flash forward to this summer and both bands have “made it.” No, neither band sells millions of copies of their records. But both bands — BJM and Dandys — are killing it each night on stage, with big crowds and happy tweeters. Anton is broad of face, no longer handsome, but certainly healthy — his Twitter feed filled with shaky pictures of the sushi he’s eating, not lines of various powders — and he is back to putting out great records. The Dandys may no longer be changing their world through their new records, but they are certainly worth seeing, one of the best live bands working today. Both bands have adoring fans, and there is room for each to be the headline act in that alternative world in which alternative music — music that matters — still exists, record companies be damned.
It is a seemingly happy time for both bands. But what really is most delightful is that Anton Newcombe, the troubled genius of Dig!, today is sober, productive, and still every bit the innovator he was in the 1990s. Rock’n’roll does not have a wealth of happy stories. This is one.