Four-Track Minds

Punk rock's greatest strength was its ability to crumble the wall separating technically proficient musicians and inspired, caterwauling amateurs -- its insistence that anyone could form a band. With advances in technology making multitrack recording both easy to use and relatively affordable, you can broaden the dictum of punk rock even further -- now, you don't even need a band.

One-man-bands are hardly new in rock and roll. As far back as 1961, Gene Pitney was layering self-recorded tracks on his raucous debut single "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," and Stevie Wonder's greatest albums from the Seventies -- Talking Book and Innervisions -- were essentially one-man projects with embellishments from outside musicians. But with the low cost of newer four-track machines (a decent model by Fostex, Tascam, or Teac will run you about $400), the floodgates have opened, with home-tapers across the globe working way beyond the realm of mainstream accessibility, free to indulge any whim, capture any sound, without dropping 80 bucks an hour at a high-tech, full-pro studio.

Alastair Galbraith is a pioneer on the home-taping landscape and a central figure in the postpunk music underground in southern New Zealand -- as one-fourth of the seminal group Plagal Grind, as half of the noise ensemble A Handful of Dust, and as a wildly prolific solo artist. His prodigious output has been scattered across numerous EPs, albums, and singles, as well as a bevy of multiartist compilations. Although the career-spanning 1994 collection Seely Girn best represents the depth and scope of Galbraith's eccentric, peculiar charms, his finest album is Morse. Originally issued in 1993 on the Philadelphia label Siltbreeze in a small, vinyl-only pressing, and out of print for most of the three years since, Morse is a dark, haunting masterpiece, full of drama and pathos -- the product of a songwriting vision not unlike the lysergically bent expoundings of Syd Barrett.

Morse has finally been reissued on the Emperor Jones offshoot of Austin's Trance Syndicate label, with the added bonus of the long MIA Siltbreeze EP Gaudy Light. The 23 tracks -- recorded by Galbraith with minimal assistance from Kiwi luminaries such as Peter Jefferies and David Mitchell -- range from the careening acoustic guitar-violin gem "As in a Blender" to the mournful drone of "Huxley" and "Screaming E." At its best, Morse conjures the feel of spending a bitter-cold winter morning alone, the sun never breaking through the clouds, and the loneliness nipping around the edges of your sanity.

Prolific as Alastair Galbraith, but significantly more warped, John Terlesky has used his four-track to capture some of the most harrowing and disturbing rock songs of the last twenty years. The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, singer/songwriter records as a bandleader with several units -- Suffacox, Fuzzface, the Original Sins, and Vibrolux among them -- but it's in his solo guise as Brother JT that Terlesky usually exorcises his most ferocious demons.

However, Rainy Day Fun (Drunken Fish) captures Terlesky at his most placid, far removed from the nerve-racked, acid-soaked dementia of previous JT affairs (cf., last year's Holy Ghost Stories). The tone throughout Rainy Day Fun is calm and relaxed, with guitars swirling in a phase-shifted haze of distortion, and the bass bouncing along to lilting Sixties-pop melodies that'll have you thinking of both the Lovin' Spoonful and third-album-era Velvet Underground. As JT whispers touching odes to tripping in front of the TV ("Is It Soup Yet," "Lights On, Nobody's Home"), adolescent sex ("Rider Rider"), and inner peace ("Beginning to Smile"), you grow tense, waiting for him to unleash his wicked other half. He never does, but that tension lends Rainy Day Fun more weight than its eerily calm mood suggests.

Bill Callahan has spent the last six or so years cataloguing his various obsessions and irritations under the fitting alias Smog, first on a series of self-released cassettes, more recently on the Chicago indie label Drag City. His early offerings -- the 1990 debut Sewn to the Sky and 1992's Forgotten Foundation, both recently reissued by Drag City -- were aurally frightening and conceptually disturbing works full of rage, confusion, and seemingly schizophrenic babble. Among the mangled guitar lines, fractured melodies, and a bedrock of clanging percussion and punishing white noise, Callahan muttered, wheezed, and yelped incomprehensibly. Song titles such as "Kings Tongue Garb" and "Confederate Bills and Pinball Slurp" pretty much tell the mental tale.

No artist could sustain that kind of damaged racket for long, and Callahan's later albums found him toning down his cacophonous roar, replacing noise with strings, and howling distortion with almost dulcet, acoustic-based soundtracks. Fittingly, The Doctor Came at Dawn is a subdued but no less disturbing set that embodies those nocturnal hours written about by Fitzgerald, where it's always three o'clock in the morning. Songs are built around Callahan's deadpan vocals and acoustic guitar, with minimal daubs of piano, backing vocals, and synth-generated strings. If his recent work lacks the cluttered mania of Sewn and Foundation, Callahan is far from anyone's idea of a happy, stable lad, and Dawn essays the roots of his imbalance. Baffled by sex ("All Your Women Things," "Spread Your Bloody Wings"), blinded by betrayal ("Whistling Teapot [Rag]"), Callahan mutters to himself in an oddly blissful state of melancholic solitude. The effect is chilling and unshakable -- like sharing a park bench with a pistol-packing manic depressive.

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