たろおみ – “たろおみの宿題” / Taroomi – “Taroomi No Shakudai” Cassette (2017)

I’m not much of a gambler.  I used to play poker with my friends in high school and college for pots made up entirely of loose change, and it was fun because over the course of an entire evening you’d lose maybe $10 if you really did poorly.  But poker ceased being fun maybe 15 or so years ago when it started appearing on TV and people got real serious about playing it, with all this talk of little blinds, big blinds, and buy-ins.  It all came to a head for me at a tournament a friend put together at his house where I ended up at a table with a lot of guys I didn’t know who were super serious about the whole thing.  The only thing fun about that evening was one guy in particular trying to decide if I was brilliant and trying to snow them all, or if I was really as bad as I appeared to be (answer – it was the latter).  As for Vegas, I’ve been there once in the last decade, on a trip for work, and I didn’t even so much as drop a quarter into a slot machine.  I’m the guy who goes to Vegas and has to pay for his booze.  Let’s be honest, those casinos aren’t there because there are ways for you to beat the house.  Frankly if I’m going to blow some cash, I’d rather just go to the record store.

Which is how I come to be playing this cassette last weekend.  A little over a week ago I was at Jet Set Records in Kyoto and I ran across a display of cassettes put out by Ocirco Records.  Given that I don’t read Japanese, I knew exactly nothing about these other than that the label the store put on them read “Indie/Rock”.  And if there’s one kind of gambling I DO like to do it’s rolling the dice on some random music, because worst case scenario I get to hear something new and still have the physical object which I could maybe sell or trade later.  So at ¥1,000 each (about $10 US) I figured I should pick one up, because why not?  It’s not like I’ll ever run across one of these at home.

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The one I grabbed is by an artist named Taroomi (たろおみ), 13-tracks of lo-fi weirdness recorded onto a standard Maxell 60 minute cassette, just like the kind we used to make mixtapes back in the day.  たろおみの宿題 is sort of bizarre, sounding very much like the kind of true indie music recorded in someone’s bedroom.  The recording quality itself is actually quite decent, with the songs themselves hard to pin down stylistically, though the whole thing has sort of a shoegaze vibe to it.  And I kind of like the fact that I don’t know what’s around the corner each time one song ends and another is about to begin.  As an added bonus it came with a download card inside because let’s be honest, how often does one have access to a tape player any more?

You, however, get the benefit of the power of the interwebs, because Ocirco Records posted this thing in its entirety on YouTube if you want to explore it.  It’s pretty cool, so you should definitely go give it a try.

William Shatner – “Has Been” (2004)

I’m not sure what, if any, credibility I have as a music blogger.  I’ve certainly put a lot of stuff out into the world of ones and zeros, just shy of 1,500 posts on Life in the Vinyl Lane over the last five-and-a-half years.  Some of it, undoubtedly, is garbage.  But if I may be permitted just a bit of ego, at least a few posts were pretty solid.  It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, since I’m not getting paid for this and you get to read it (or not read it) for free, but like anyone who is compelled to write at an almost compulsive level I try to put my best foot and word forward.

Today I put all that cred, such as it is, on the line.  Because today I’m going to tell you about the sheer brilliance of William Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been.

Wait, what?  What?!  You’re going to seriously and un-ironically extoll the virtues of an album by an actor perhaps best known for playing Captain James T. Kirk and TJ Hooker?  A guy whose delivery style is a favorite target of comedians, second only to Christopher Walken?  The same William Shatner who gave the world the surreal cover of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” in 1968?

Yes friends, that William Shatner.  The Shat.

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A friend of mine bought me a copy of Has Been as a birthday gift.  I’m pretty sure it was intended as a bit of a joke, and that’s certainly how I took it.  When I played it for the first time I figured it’d be good for a chuckle or two, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case.  And when I heard the brutal honest delivery of “That’s Me Trying” followed by the gut-wrenching “What Have You Done?” I knew this was something important.

The list of contributors to Has Been is impressive.  Produced by Ben Folds, a number of writers and performers worked with Shatner on this partially autobiographical work.  Joe Jackson is here, and so too are Henry Rollins and Aimee Mann and Jon Auer.  Nick Hornby wrote one of the songs.  That’s quite a collection of talent, and these folks didn’t sign on to be part of some kind of joke project or a simple money-grab.  Something about it intrigued them.  The Shat.

The album opens with a cover of Pulp’s “Common People” before providing us with a pair of soul numbers.  There’s a genuineness to Shatner’s delivery on these two songs, the quiet loneliness that infuses “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” and the impassioned gospel-esque, preacher-style life lesson of “You’ll Have Time”.  But it’s the fourth song that brings me back time after time (after time), the aforementioned “That’s Me Trying”.  While real-life Shatner has solid relationships with all three of his daughters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he is in fact the dead-beat dad who narrates the song and is trying to reconnect with one of his adult children.

I got your name from the phone book at the library.
Wandered in, looked you up and you were there.
Weird that you’ve been living, maybe, 2 miles away 
For the best part of 20 years…

The perspective is that of a man who abandoned his children and wants to reconnect… but only on his terms.  He’s still so selfish (I don’t want to know if I’ve got grandchildren…), but in his own way he is in fact trying, trying to connect, and the whispered I’m trying that closes the song makes me sigh every single time I hear it.

That’s followed by the album’s most poignant, and indeed most difficult to listen to composition, “What Have You Done?”  Shatner has been very open over the years about the death of his third wife, Nerine, in 1999.  She struggled with alcoholism, and it contributed to her drowning death in their home’s swimming pool.  “What Have You Done?” isn’t a song per se – there’s no musical accompaniment.  Instead it’s a quiet two minutes of Shatner recounting  the moment he found Nerine and pulled her from the pool, hoping she was still alive but knowing she wasn’t.  My love was supposed to protect her / It didn’t / My love was supposed to heal her / It didn’t.  It’s gut-wrenching and honest.  It’s the kind of art I’m glad exists in the world, even though it’s incredibly painful to hear.

“Familiar Love” is presented to us by a worldly man, one who has experienced just about everything that life has to offer and knows what he wants and, more poignantly, what’s important.  But that’s followed by “Ideal Woman”, a humorous view through the eyes of a man who tells his lover that he wants her to be who she is, to be honest and true to herself, except… well, he sneaks in a few caveats that shows what he truly wants is to her to be her, unless it’s something that he finds annoying.

The title song is high point, The Shat confronting the haters of the world, those who throw around labels like “has been” directed at those who were once incredibly successful but now are not, conveniently forgetting that they themselves have never done anything of consequence.

Riding on their armchairs,
They dream of wealth and fame.
Fear is their companion,
Nintendo is their game.
Never done Jack and two thumbs Don
And sidekick don’t say Dick.
We’ll laugh at others failures…
Though they have not done shit.

Shatner has certainly been on the receiving end of this slap-in-the-face jibes over the course of his career.  He’s the easy mark with his distinctive and deliberate style and his willingness to take risks, many of which fail.  But the haters, on the other hand, are paralyzed by their fear, never taking a chance, never willing to be honest and open and risk failing.

While the delivery of “Has Been” is both a bit comical and done with the subtle, knowing voice of a man who has responded to this kind of crap countless times before, on “I Can’t Get Behind That” Shatner pairs up with Henry Rollins to get a bit aggro about the things in this world that they, well, just can’t get behind.  Silly things like car alarms and leaf blowers but also more serious stuff like, oh, say religion and global warming.  I’ve heard Rollins talk about the unlikely friendship he and Shatner developed (including things like Shatner inviting Henry over to his house to watch football), and it’s clear there’s a lot of mutual respect there.

Has Been is something unique, that thing that should have been a joke but wasn’t.  Sure, there are a few tracks that don’t do it for me, but when Shatner is on, he’s on.  My guess is you can find this sucker in the used racks somewhere; if you do, give it a try.  You won’t regret it.

Nash the Slash – “The Million-Year Picnic” (1984)

The 1980s were a strange time in music, a time when less traditional instruments found a temporary home in rock.  Sure, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson played a ton of flute the decade before, but he was (and is) sort of anomaly.  Saxophones, synths, violins, and all kinds of other stuff found their ways onto songs in the early part of the decade as the “new wave” scene attracted young people with a more artistic bent who didn’t feel the need to trade their clarinets for guitars just to make the kind of music they wanted to hear.

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Which brings us to Nash the Slash, aka Jeff Plewman.  I think the beginning of his Wikipedia bio makes the point quite effectively:  “…he was known primarily for playing the electric violin and mandolin, as well as the harmonica, keyboards, glockenspiel, and other instruments”.  Because nothing rocks like a glockenspiel.

I found this record the other day down in Portland and it looked interesting, the cover giving off that sort of On-U / Gary Clail / Tackhead vibe.  Musically, though, it’s couldn’t be more different (well, mostly….).  The opening track, “The Million-Year Picnic”, immediately took me back to the end of Revenge of the Nerds (which, perhaps not coincidentally, came out the same year as The Million-Year Picnic) when the nerds perform at the talent show and do a crazy musical number with an electric violin.  But following that we’re immediately taken in a different direction, sort of sci-fi-industrial like a bizarre Tangerine-Dream-meets-Gary-Clail with the pro-working-man and anti establishment “Swing Shift (Soixante-Neuf)”, a surprisingly catchy track.  And as for the cover of “Dead Man’s Curve”, well, you need to experience that for yourself.

Dream Wife – “Dream Wife” (2018)

I am not my body,
I’m somebody.
— “Somebody”

The world needs more female rock bands.  Women have won over audiences throughout the musical spectrum (though at times their gains were hard-won), but the world of rock has proven a tougher nut to crack.  Certainly a handful have made their mark, especially fronting groups – I’m thinking here of super-talented women like Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and the woefully underrated Suzi Quatro.  Punk is the one area of the harder genres that women have been able to flourish and find acceptance for their talent, starting with the earliest days of the scene through riot grrrl and into the modern day.  Europe is more advanced than the US in this regard and over the last nine years of attending Iceland Airwaves we’ve seen tons of ladies on stage who rocked out faces off, both in all-female and mixed-gender bands.

But I have seen the future of women in rock, my friends.  And that future’s name is Dream Wife.

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Dream Wife’s 2016 debut EP (EP01) destroyed all comers, a four-song pop-punk masterpiece that will melt your jaded rock ‘n’ roll heart and make you fall in love with music all over again.  Last year they gave us the five-song 12″ Fire and later in the year they announced their first full-length, the self-titled Dream Wife that just dropped about a week ago.  They are talented.  They are empowering.  And they know how to rock.

First things first.  If you have some of Dream Wife’s other stuff you’ll probably notice that you know some of the songs on Dream Wife – five of the album’s 11 songs appear on earlier releases.  But in many ways that’s a good thing, because the band has gotten so much amazing press over the last six months or so that my guess is a lot of folks buying this LP will be experiencing the band for the first time, and those earlier songs are integral to understanding their sound. (♠)

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Dream Wife opens with “Let’s Make Out”, and right from the get-go it’s apparent that they’re exploring a harder sound.  Sure, it’s rock ‘n’ roll at its core and the backing vocals are reminiscent of the best of doo-wop, but Rakel Mjöll pushes her voice hard into what at times becomes raspy, yelled, and aggressive; she’s not suggesting we make out, she’s flat-out demanding we do so, right now.  Sonically it’s quite the juxtaposition to their earlier work, such as the album’s second track “Somebody”, a more poppy number on which Rakel’s lyrics drift about of their own accord, not tied down to any rigid musical structure.  It’s a technique she’s used to great effect both with Dream Wife and back in 2015 with the brilliant Halleluwah, whose self-titled and only LP was my pick for top album that year.

After a trio of previously-released tracks we reach the second new song on Dream Wife, “Love Without Reason”.  And if “Let’s Make Out” made me think that maybe the band was moving in a harder direction, this does a complete 180, a sweet and dreamy song that suggests let’s be kids / and fall in love.  “Kids” brings us back to the combo rock-pop mold that is Dream Wife’s wheelhouse, a certain pop sensibility that can (and does) explode at any moment into a supernova of punk attitude and dissonance.

Dream Wife have been musically tight since their earliest releases.  Guitarist Alice Go and bassist Bella Podpadec drive the action, along with the band’s seldom-mentioned drummer (and only male member) Alex Paveley, but arguably the most distinctive element is Rakel’s voice and delivery.  She often appears to be following her own path as her vocals wander about in ways that are alternatingly charming and aggressive, and her Icelandic-accented English provides a certain uniqueness to her words.  Bella and Alice’s backing vocals, structured and punctuated, are the perfect offset to their lead singer, and the whole thing comes together in a way that gives Dream Wife a unique sound that commands attention.  If you haven’t heard them before, you owe it to yourself to check out the new album.  You can give it a listen as well as purchase it in a variety of formats on their Bandcamp page HERE.

(♠)  It appears that the only previously-released song (excluding remixes) that didn’t make it onto the new album is “Lolita”, which is a bit surprising since it’s so good.  When Dream Wife blows up and becomes hugely popular (which WILL happen), I suspect “Lolita” will be like one of those hard-to-find B sides that the die-hards are always searching for.

“Sub Pop 100” Compilation (1986)

Collectors often have those one or two items that they would just absolutely love to own but don’t have for whatever reason.  Sometimes the reason is price – it’s either way more expensive than you can afford, or sometimes you can afford it but you can’t justify spending that kind of money on an object, an object that more often than not has no practical purpose.  Other times it’s purely an issue of scarcity – the thing is just so rare or hard to find that you simply can’t acquire one.  I’ve been involved in a number of collectible-type hobbies over the years, and in all of them I’ve heard the same term used to describe these items – “holy grails”, or just “grails” for short.

Now, your grail and my grail are almost certainly different.  Even if we’re into the same stuff there’s a good chance that our biggest “wants” are different.  Sure, there are those high-demand, ultra-rare items that seem to be on everyone’s lists.  But for many their grail is an obscurity, perhaps something to which they have a personal connection.  The internet has, to a great extent, removed a lot of the barriers to acquiring your grail.  Sure, there are one-of-a-kind items out there that will always be almost impossible to find; but chances are if something is just plain “rare”, someone, somewhere on the internet will have one for sale, or at least it will appear for sale (or auction) every now and then.  Which means that more often than not it comes down to price. (♠)

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I don’t have an actual “Want List” of records I’m looking for.  I do have a “grail” (♣), but it’s not something that I’m pining away for with a hole in my soul as I desperately seek it.  Maybe when I was younger I felt the pull of things like that stronger, but as I’ve gotten older I recognize that stuff is just stuff, and while it’s fun to have, it’s not all that important.  That being said, one of my “want” items over the years, dating back to before I sold off al my vinyl back in the 90s, was Sub Pop 100, the comp that in many ways started it all out here in Seattle.  Yes, Bruce Pavitt had been putting out comp tapes for a few years as part of his Subterranean Pop zine, but I think this was the first thing the label put out on vinyl, the opening salvo of a soon-to-be indie label juggernaut.  I feel like my buddy John’s older brother Dave had it, and it was one of the records in his collection I coveted.  By time I started buying Sub Pop stuff over at Cellophane Square the 1986 comp was already out of print and moderately expensive as a used item – I feel like it was around $50, which was a lot for me in those high school days.  Ultimately I’ve had my hands on a dozen or so copies over the years, but each has either been too expensive, too trashed, or a combination of both. (♥)  At least that was true until last week when my favorite local shop, Easy Street Records, had their 29th anniversary sale, offering 29% off all used vinyl.  We made the rare mid-week drive to West Seattle the night of the sale, and there was an excellent copy of Sub Pop 100 (with insert) on the wall.  The price wasn’t cheap, but at 29% off it suddenly because reasonable, and I pulled the trigger.

It would be natural to assume that Sup Pop 100 is a Seattle comp, or at the very least one that focuses on the Northwest.  However, that’s not the case; in fact only four of the 13 artists are from the region, and only one (the U-Men) is actually from Seattle.  Not only are the contributors from all over the U.S. map, but there are three from outside the country as well – Vancouver’s Skinny Puppy, Mexico’s Lupe Diaz, and Shonen Knife from Japan.  So it’s more a celebration of indie music than it is local music.  According to Pavitt the record sold 5,000 copies (♦) and it’s never been reprinted, so it has a certain level of scarcity though it’s hardly rare.

Big Black’s Steve Albini offers up a crazed spoken word intro, and from there it’s off to the races with a very punk side A.  The live version of “Nothin’ to Prove” by Portland’s Wipers sounds killer, as does Naked Raygun’s surf-infused instrumental “Bananacuda”. This side of the record is definitely a preview of sorts of the kind of music that Sub Pop would soon become known for releasing – punk attitude and often raw.  It’s the B side, however, where the real magic happens.  Skinny Puppy’s “Church in Hell” still sounds dark and intimidating over 30 years later, and Steve Fisk’s “Go At Full Throttle” will make you wonder if perhaps you are just listening to a song or are in fact losing your grip on reality.  Boy Dirt Car’s “Impact Test” is industrial in the truest sense of the word, a collection of machine noises interspersed with some occasional electronic feedback.  The two most “song-like” tracks are Savage Republic’s “Real Men”, a song driven by guitar feedback and tribal drumming, and Shonen Knife’s “One Day of the Factory”, done in their typical pop-punk style.  It closes out with an untitled track that samples Barry White and ends in a locked track of him moaning.  Because why wouldn’t it?

Sub Pop 100 definitely lived up to expectations, collecting an intriguing group of relatively unknown and indie bands of varying styles.  So if you can find a copy for 29% off, I say go for it!

(♠)  Or, more precisely, the intersection of price and condition.

(♣)  Þeyr’s Þagað Í Hel, in case you want to get me something for Christmas.

(♥)  Plus of course it carries a premium out here in Seattle, home of Sub Pop.  Of course, as I noted before the internet has been available to me as a resource… but ultimately I didn’t want it bad enough, and I was a bit concerned about condition.

(♦)  Per the book Sub Pop USA:  The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988 (p. 331).