Thursday, June 17, 2004

Ok, I'm going to try to hang on until the end of June (especially because I'm still waiting for something that I want to run on a No Wave Friday) but then I'm taking July off...I'm just much too busy. Sorry. I'd send you over to Classical Gasp as a superior replacement, but he seems to have had the same vacation idea (unless he's come back since I wrote this).

The Grifters. I sometimes wonder if they could have been as big as Guided By Voices if they'd just had better timing. GbV had the good fortune to release their best album (Bee Thousand, and let's agree to disagree if we must) just as interest in the band was peaking, and the rest is history. When fame beckoned, the Grifters released a kind of watered down version of what they'd been doing all along, with a from-the-album single that sounded just like Guided By Voices, and then limped off of the field after one more (good in spots) album.

Not that they usually sounded like GbV. Often compared to Sonic Youth and (with even greater inaccuracy) to Pavement, The Grifters sounded more like Sonic Youth's older cousin from the southern branch of the family: the one who actually had hair on his chest and liked cars and beer and sports and knew how to hunt. There's something manly about them, or maybe that's just because they were from Memphis. An early Grifters single was titled Daydream Riot, so I'm not going to argue that they never heard of Sonic Youth. But, even at their most abstract, the Grifters sounded like guys with Gibsons playing rock in a swamp somewhere. This cannot be said of SY or Pavement.

Getting a handle on the Grifters isn't all that easy. They wrote songs that could veer from chaos to pop in a second. They could be lo-fi or well produced. Their best CD may very well be an EP that has influences ranging from Springsteen to the Beatles to Royal Trux. While Sonic Youth worked noise and feedback into the structure of their songs, Grifters tunes often seemed to be accidentally coalescing out of background sludge, hiss and feedback.

You know how a lot of bands talk about the compelling little accidental details on the demo versions of their songs that they're unable to replicate in the studio? Like an interesting guitar buzz or a perfectly intoned vocal yelp or an unrepeatable noise solo or the drummer knocked over a bottle of beer at the exactly perfect moment? I think that capturing these little items was the Grifters' raison d'etre, and on their best tracks there'll be any number of odd details that could never be on purpose: sections where the song falls apart in a fascinating way, or where the guitar players are playing completely separate songs that somehow work together.

One problem with this is that the Grifters weren't Talk Talk, i.e. they didn't have the budget to hang out in a real studio for years and wait for these things to happen. So most of their good albums are mid to lo-fi, and when they did move to real studios on a regular basis (especially for their last two albums) they lost something.

Blah, blah, blah. Another thing about the Grifters is that they just loved to release fantastic songs as vinyl-only singles, and they never have had a decent collection as far as I know. And I doubt they ever will, since their branch of musical experimentation seems like a closed case these days. I'm not going to do a one-day summary of the Grifters, but I may drop in on them from time to time.

In 1994, they dipped a toe into the Sub Pop waters with a single that featured Queen Of The Table Waters b/w Return To Cinder (a different and, IMHO, inferior version of Return To Cinder would appear on their first Sub Pop LP a couple of years later). As far as I know, the single is uncompiled, though it does appear to still be available from Sub Pop.

I think that that first song is probably one of the best things they ever did. It starts with a strange intro where a little kid sings about sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening and sugar at suppertime, then the band comes in singing a chorus of "Spit out the gems!"* as the volume slowly builds and then boom we're off as one riff gives way to another, with periodic breakdowns and stumbles before a final "yeah, yeah, yeah" and boom the whole thing explodes and it's done. It's pretty breathtaking, and it's really hard to pull this sort of thing off. Hope you like it!

*no lyric sheet, so I'm assuming that's the line.

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