I picked 1999 as a theme because it feels, to me, like it’s perceived as a fallow year. 1997 felt like a marquee year for big modernist rock releases, Radiohead, The Verve, Spiritualized, Blur’s step towards American experimentalism, Oasis’ grand folly, plus the big-beat monopoly of The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Prodigy’s US breakout. 1998 was a transition year, the moment Britney landed, the last year when something definably 90s happened. 2000, with XTRMNTR, The Marshall Mathers LP, At The Drive-In, Kid A, Queens Of The Stone Age, PJ Harvey, Supreme Clientele, Coldplay’s debut, and Stankonia, feels like the beginning of a new decade. But 1999 feels like The Flaming Lips and piss-all else.
I first heard MAKE-UP in 1999, and while I really love it, and have subsequently bought a handful more albums by them (although I’ve never investigated Nation of Ulysses, the group they evolved out of), I’d never claim it as a classic nor expect all that many other people to love it. I do think it’s great fun, though, for pretty much every second of its 35-minute length.
I understand Nation of Ulysses as a shouting, testifying, politically-charged, DC post-hardcore band who ran their course and then, in the mid 90s, under the leadership of singer Ian Svenonious, adjusted line-up slightly and transformed into a late 1960s underground gospel-garage dirty psychedelic band. Whether they’re pastiche merchants, parodists, or loving adherents of a certain aesthetic is not clear – there’s such care in the way this album, and all their others, is recorded, in the way the band present themselves from record sleeves to matching yellow jumpsuits, such passion in the onstage testimonials to the power of rock and roll, of soul, of jazz, of gospel, that if this is pastiche or performativity then it’s of the type that is so committed as to overwhelm any initial motivations. MAKE-UP blow notions of authenticity out of the window; there is no inclination of where the line between the real people end and the “band” (as gang, as performance, as philosophy, as presentation) begins – at least one other album by them claims to have been recorded live in front of an audience despite (apparently) not having been.
Save Yourself itself is murky, funky, sexually-charged (comically so – despite Svenonious claiming in an interview around the time that advertisers only used sex as a selling tool in order to encourage people to procreate and thus ensure the existence of future markets to buy products, and not because sex itself is an intrinsically pleasurable activity – again, where does performance end?), driven by blacker-than-black, echoing, reverberant, subterranean basslines and decorated with lashes and storms of properly dirty electric guitar plus squalls and swoons of excitable brass. There’s a two-minute song built around an irresistible organ riff and entitled “White Belts”; a lascivious paean to the angles and edges of shapes with multiple sides (“I’ll be your tetrahedron” indeed); a song called “C’Mon Let’s Spawn” with brass which can only be described as erotic and which, joy of joys, fades out and then back in again. The album climaxes with an eight-minute cover of “Hey Joe” which turns the song into a duet between Joe and his maltreated lady, which devolves into accelerating guitars and a bizarre telephone conversation. It’s brilliant, but it’s the sound of 1969, not 1999.
Boredoms – “◯” (circle) from Vision Creation Newsun
As Save Yourself is only 35 minutes long, I picked a big track to go with it – the storming, psychedelic, tribal rave-up that is the opening track from Boredoms’ masterpiece. I think of VCN as being an album from 2000, which is about when I first heard of it, but it was actually released in autumn 1999 in the group’s native Japan. Boredoms are another group who evolved out of a punk band, only this time the punk band wasn’t another unit with a different name; it was Boredoms themselves. Over 15 years they moved from shouty, near-incoherent, cyberpunk beginnings into a relentlessly experimental, rhythm-worshipping collective who bridge the gaps between dance music, The Wire-friendly avant-garde noise, experimental indierock, prog, and blissful ambient. Over it’s near 14-minute length, “◯” sums up the entirety of its parent album – repeated guitar riffs and raucous multiple-drummer rhythms disintegrating and rebuilding into and out of calmer, disorienting lulls of sound. I find it exhilarating and irresistible.
Tom Listened: I really liked the first track on this album. It felt not unlike Kill The Moonlight era Spoon and set the album up beautifully; tight, taught and spare it really whetted my appetite for more. Unfortunately, for me, the rest of the album failed to come close to those initial heights and I found the rest of the songs to be a bit of a cliched mess to be honest. It seemed as though the album’s production was deliberately muddied to give it that late 60s Nuggets garage rock sound so that, whereas Jim O’Rourke is updating the sounds of the 60s within a modern context and, to my mind, creating an homage in the process, Make-Up on Save Yourself came across as pastiche. It wasn’t awful, but after the excellent first track (Save Yourself) I was expecting the unexpected.
A band I had never heard of, but that’s why I enjoy DRC. This was great stuff. Once I was updated on the band’s philosphy and mission, I could really appreciate their sound was for themselves and their followers only. Commercialism was not going to cause them to stray from their path. In fact it sounded to me like a couple of tracks could have easily been transformed in to bright/catchy/poppy hits, but that is clearly not where Make-Up wanted to go. Still their militant funkamentalism (I hereby copyright that expression!) was really enjoyable.