53. TELSTAR PONIES – IN THE SPACE OF A FEW MINUTES

Greatest Records, Post rock, Rock Music, Shoegaze

Sometimes I think the nineties was the worst decade for music to date. The twin behemoths of grunge and brit-pop may dominate any retrospective reviews of the decade but left very few albums that stand the test of time (to these ears) twenty plus years on. There were of course many other interesting things going on, the rise of electronica and dance culture and the global take over of hip-hop even as these genres blanded out and became the mainstream. Looking back now it is the bands that remained underground and retained credibility in the face of the music industries last hurrahs that I continue to return to and which only seem to improve as time passes. Before the internet removed record labels influence and wiped out the music weeklies.

1995 was the year of the jolly ‘oliday that was britpop. While some see the mid nineties as the time when independent music finally went overground to dominate the mainstream, in truth most of what made the charts was at best a watered down version of the music of the past ten years with particular emphasis on the type of bands who wanted to relive the sixties. As bands began to see the charts and major label deals as a viable option, edges were knocked off and sounds blanded out.

In Scotland however the best of the bands that emerged in the middle of the decade made it with their rough edges intact. While Bis, The Delgados and Belle and Sebastian refined melodic indie pop into new shapes bands like Mogwai and best of all the Telstar Ponies took inspiration from across the pond in the previous ten years of American alternative rock. Ignoring the barely disguised sub-metal that was most of the bands that exploited Nirvana’s success, these bands took inspiration from Sonic Youth, a little of the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star, and the disturbed sounds of Slint and Codeine, and forged their own sound

While Britpop dominated the music press, it’s easy to see why the experimental post rock of Telstar Ponies might not sit well next to Wake Up Boo, Country House et al. But while contemporaries Mogwai (who they shared more than just a drummer with) continued to bigger and bigger stages, the Telstar Ponies folded after the release of the flawed second album Voices From The New Music. In The Space Of A Few Minutes, however is a downbeat, edgy and intense masterpiece. It’s a restless music that can’t seem to settle, it’s the sound of those too hot city summer nights when you can’t sleep, the windows open to street sounds, the sound of frayed tempers and lovers quarrels, its walking home under orange streetlights anticipating confrontation. It is also tender, frightening and ultimately hopeful.

The songs are split between Brendan O’Hare and David Keenan (five each) and Rachel Devine (three), but there is little to separate them. The songs on this album sit together as a perfect whole. The opener The Moon Is Not A Puzzle, is a tense duet between David and Rachel building and building as she repeats “If you stay then I will go”. The vocals are mixed low so you find yourself leaning in, trying to catch what is going on (a couple of songs – Two’s Insane and Maya the vocals are almost indecipherable). Lügengeschichte (tall tale) is a helter skelter descent with heavy nods to from Neu! 2’s Super to, well, Neu! 2’s Fur Immer with great lyrics (I have no thoughts of self control) and ends with some crazy phasing. The single Not Even Starcrossed (taking its title from a line in a Codeine song)is a doomed romance of a song (wishing on a star, never should be wrong, when you got nothing)building to a beautifully elegiac chorus of “I’m in love with you”. Maya always reminded me of the atmosphere of Tom Verlaine’s Words From The Front.

Right in the middle of the album is a magical re-working of Patty Waters “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight” re-imagined as a gorgeous torch song. Sung by Keenan, importantly he doesn’t change the gender of the songs subject (these things matter sometimes). It was hearing the records of Telstar Ponies that led me to investigate Patty Waters, Shizuka, Albert Ayler.

Monster is all anguished pounding before erupting at the chorus. Best of all is “Side Netting” which just aches, heaving under a narcotic drift of guitars like The Only Ones Inbetweens. The menacing Her Name (“Me and her won’t sleep tonight”)  and Innerhalb Weniger Minuten as Rachel Devine intones a mystery tale over a brooding soundtrack . It all ends on a hopeful note with I Still Believe in Christmas Trees.

The Ponies managed one more album. The following years Tales From The New Music may even reach greater heights than the debut, but lacks the consistency of sound of their debut. After that there was the odd single released, but nothing else. Some members released further music under various guises, some of it great, all of it interesting, but not reaching the heights of what was achieved here.

As for the 1990’s, it is only when you start adding up the bands that released classic in that decade (Luna, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Pastels, Spectrum, Dead Moon, Primordial Undermind etc) that you realise it wasn’t all bad. And In The Space Of A Few Minutes is one of the best. (TT)

18. SONIC YOUTH – SISTER (1987)

Indie / Alternative, Noise Rock

When a bands career exceeds 20 years and sixteen plus albums it is difficult to know where to start. To any newcomer to the world of Sonic Youth I would point them in the direction of their fifth album Sister. This is an album often unfairly overlooked in favour of its big brother (Ha!) Daydream Nation or their more heavily promoted major label records released throughout the nineties. 

Sister was released in 1987, arriving in the middle of a perfect three album run (between EVOL and Daydream Nation) that rivals Bob Dylan’s similar run of albums in 1965-66 for inspiration to a rock underground. Recorded at Sears Sound in the middle of Times Square, it fits in perfectly to a line of New York rock that stretches from The Velvet Underground through Patti Smith and the Voidoids. But theres more to it than that. As a band they capture something of the American Night better than any band since the Doors. There is also a real classic psych/garage rock feel to a lot this record – imagine the frantic Feathered Fish through a New York/No Wave Filter, or a post punk take on Voices Green and Purple. 

Sister finds The Sonic Youth (as they are called on the sleeve) moving away from their earlier sound into more arranged songs and sounding all the better for it. The twin guitars of Ranaldo and Moore still coil and snake around each other like Verlaine and Lloyd or Quine and Julian. A lot of Sister reminds me of those early Eno/Island Television demos when Richard Hell was still in the band, when the songs were not quite formed, the guitars still feeling their way into the songs and stripped of the raunch and polish that Andy Johns brought to Marquee Moon. The songs still ebb and flow often breaking down halfway through. That they hold together so well I think is down to Steve Shelley, now fully integrated into the band. 

Opener Schizophrenia comes on like the Cramps covering I Worship The Sun, or is it Felt covering Can’t Find My Mind. Either way, two minutes in the song collapses in on itself the way only Sonic Youth seem to be able to do as Kim takes over vocals from Thurston and the song shifts somewhere else- “The future is static, it’s all in your mind”. It is really quite beautiful.

(I Got A) Catholic Block has such a killer riff. In the summer of 1988 I used to wake up every morning to the live version of this song on the Rhythm and Noise compilation cassette given away with Underground magazine. It was like waking up to someone throwing a firework in your bed. 

Beauty lies in the eye distills Patti Smiths first three albums into two minutes twelve seconds, and yet sounds nothing like her. Take the atmosphere and mood of We Three, add the turbulent guitars of Birdland and transmit it from the furthest reaches of Radio Ethiopia and you might get close to the beauty of this song.

Stereo Sanctity opens with Thurston and engineer Bill Titus trading “Seven”’s (and Seven and Seven is?) before taking us on a white knuckle ride through Phillip K. Dicks psyche. Side one closes with Pipeline/Kill Time – “Stretch me to the point where I stop” such a classic opening line to a rock and roll song.

Side two opens with Tuff Gnarl like folk rock gone wrong, Thurston cutting up fanzine reviews to form the lyrics. Kims Pacific Coast Highway is up next, sounding like the worst hitch hiking experience ever. Again after one minute the song shifts mood to somewhere prettier before grinding back.  A cover of Crimes “Hot Wire My Heart” makes perfect sense here. It took me about another fifteen years before I managed to hear the original and its influence on the Sonic Youth sound was not hard to spot.

Cotton Crown starts like the band trying to ape the Steve Miller Bands “Song For Our Ancestors”, relocating it from the San Francisco Bay to the the Hudson river, before becoming one of Sonic Youths more sensuous songs. Of course it doesn’t stay that way for long. I can never figure out if this is a love song to a person (“Angels are dreaming of you”) or a city (“New York City is forever kitty”) or something else entirely. The album closes with punker White Cross, another catholic guilt song. 

Flashback to Sunday 7 June 1987.  Sonic Youth are onstage at Rooftops in Glasgow, setting up their own gear. they look impossibly cool. Lee Ranado seems to have about half a dozen electric twelve string guitars behind him in cardboard boxes. This is my first time seeing them (I’d missed the Splash One gig the previous year). They kick off with Schizophrenia and end with Expressway To Your Skull. In between they blew my mind. When I picture them in my head this is what I see and Sister is what I hear. Remember them this way. (TT)

Hugo Largo - Mettle

1. HUGO LARGO – METTLE (1989)

Dreampop, Indie / Alternative, Post rock, Shoegaze

Melody Maker famously called 1988 “rock’s greatest year” – perhaps with some justification. Across the Atlantic there was a proliferation of post-hardcore experimentation in guitar noise (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Butthole Surfers etc) while at home, others (AR Kane, MBV) absorbed some of that inspiration to create something even more ravishingly beautiful and radical. If the apex of this first ‘blissed out’ generation was AR Kane’s aptly titled  Up Home! EP (which Simon Reynolds memorably described as “rock’s Antarctica…it’s final petrifying spell – the sound of a million icicles”) …then Hugo Largo’s Mettle was stretching the limits in the opposite direction. Their only full-length album was released on Eno’s Land label, but the crucial rule here was not to remain on terra firma. As if Brian would sanction that. If the likes of MBV were rocketing through the sonic stratosphere, then it was only natural that their visionary (distant) cousins should aim to go back down again, down as far as one could go, even into the womb – to the warm blue belly of a new aquatic Eden.

Their singer Mimi Goese probably believed in new age crystals. She sang about turtles and Native American  philosophy. She threw a few words of Japanese into the mix. All in the name of art you see. Pretentious? Perhaps. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with knives girl? But did it matter? Not a bit. The band broke all the rock rules. No guitar in sight. Hearing and seeing them for the first time in 1988 (supporting That Petrol Emotion bizarrely!) that seemed strange enough, but it took me a bit longer to realise that the drummer hadn’t simply been given the night off. Instead the soundtrack was provided by two bass guitars and a solitary violin. You might think there’d be something missing from the sound, but no, it surrounded and enveloped the listener like a velvet glove.

Hahn Rowe’s undulating violin tugs like the undertow around the rippling melodic lines of the brace of bass. The songs are strong, the melodies soporific yet full of surprises. Mettle may not be a post-rock blueprint (AR Kane’s 69 has a greater claim to that title) but it is a post-rawk blueprint. It is also the bluest album ever made, and by that I mean azure, the colour of the ocean, rather than morose. In fact it’s quite the opposite of blue in that sense. “Try taking off your noisy head; rest it on a pillow soaked in melting wax” Mimi sings with almost evangelical zeal on ‘Hot Day’. Quite. (JJ)