New Compilation Offers Peek Into Delirious Music Documented By Unruly Baltimore Label
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In a building downtown on West Baltimore Street, somewhere around 1995, Jason Willett, along with a cadre of friends, set out on a venture of ridiculousness that even in retrospect could make Wham City quake. Now a co-owner of True Vine Records and linchpin of old weird Baltimore, Willett's then co-conspirators ranged from Half Japanese's Jad Fair and Boredoms' Eye Yamatsuka to local avant-sax virtuoso John Dierker and "Shitty Kitty," handling meows. The venture wasn't to get famous, rich, or probably even respected--but because they just couldn't help it.
Records followed, naturally, and the outlet for them was Willett's Megaphone Limited label, releasing albums from bands such as the Dramatics, X-Ray Eyes, the Dentures, the Can Openers, and the Pleasant Livers, among others. "This was pure and transcendent art, followed by a throng of exclamation points, backed up to a point way beyond any claims of itself with potent, terrifying authenticity," the label's web site biography claims without so much as a wink.
The tight musician network, the ratty digs, the transgressive ethos, and the idea that they weren't doing so much of anything important as much as not doing anything most people thought was important--"a movement of actual cultural significance, despite the efforts of those involved to deny its status as such," the bio continues. It sounds, in manifesto and music, a great deal like no wave, which was born out of a similarly insular, similarly small group of musicians in a still beat-up late-1970s Manhattan that probably felt a bit like West Baltimore Street. The total disregard for anything that is rock 'n' roll, and feverish, compulsive experimentation with an anarchic nontemplate of free jazz, noise, and cherry-picked ideas of musicianship, put it well within line. But, some two decades too late and short one Brian Eno, the Megaphone world never got its No New York. Consider the new The Sounds of Megaphone Limited, on local label MT6 Records, that late entry.
The 20-track retrospective, mostly centered around unreleased tracks from 1995-'96, is a bear in the best way. You might tap your toe once through the whole thing, on a song titled simply and tellingly "Beautiful Song," by Willett sans band, one of only a few tracks here that don't involve one of his many outfits. "Beautiful" still might not be the right word. Catchy, approachable, rhythmic--it's like what the Boredoms might come up with if you told them to make a song "bouncy." We're pretty sure whatever sounds like a plinked PVC pipe on it is actually a guitar.
One Boredom does, in fact, show up on Megaphone, and it's nothing like bouncy--at least until its swingin' last minute--and everything like awesome. "Club Leaf Foot Hopper"--it's hard to tell from the liner notes the difference between song titles and descriptions--is a track recorded by the Dramatics, a band featuring Willett and filmmaker Martha Colburn that often made musical scores for Colburn's short films. Joining on the track is none other than Eye, the Boredoms' supreme primitive, making the sound you hear right before you get a spear in the back while hacking through the remote Amazon: ayiieeeayieayieayieayie! (Note that this goes on for far longer than is worth typing it.) Also making an appearance here--and on at least one other song on Megaphone--is Wally, a duck. And we're willing to assume that Wally is a real duck, just as much as we're willing to assume that Shitty Kitty is a shitty kitty.
Of course, Wally is part of where the whole no wave comparison breaks down. The no wavers took their shit really seriously, or as seriously as you can without having talent. Judging from this disc, Willett's Megaphone Limited world makes its music with a wide grin. Nor is it reacting to anything, at least beyond absurdity being a reaction to seriousness--racket for its own sake.
And there was a wealth of it. While not limited to Megaphone, Fair and Willett purportedly released some 13 albums together, which we imagine to be a whole mess of drum, keyboard, and spoken-word babbling. On the compilation we get three halfway-groovy drum-and-key tracks, ranging from the spacey ramble "Or so I've Been Told" to thundering "Avabella," three-minutes of echoing drum with tendrils of voice and squiggle poking through. Together, it's like listening to a private conversation between Fair and Willett in their own made-up language tentatively based on pop music.
When anything "free jazz" gets caught up in electric music, the results tend to get loud and hairy, hence "noise." And, oddly enough, it isn't until the collection's most recent track, and one of its most unplugged, that things turn to genuine squall, save for X-Ray Eyes' "Shreddies," which is just what it sounds like. Leprechaun Catering, Willett's latest outfit, contributes a track recorded live at Floristree last fall that blusters through in battered drums, broken strings, and rubber band.
The disc closes with the Jaunties calling "Donut World" on "Call Donut World," and it couldn't get more apt. It's a tape-manipulated conversation between beings that presumably include members of the Jaunties with the choice exchange: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" Answer: "If he's in space, I believe in Jesus Christ." As if you need more proof that everything you'd listened to prior came from a colony of aliens.