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.

On Avery Island, the Merge-released debut from Jeff Magnum's home-baked Neutral Milk Hotel, opens with a miscued blast of synthesized fuzz and random chatter, just before the careening first track rips through the confusion. It's a hell of a setup: In the grand tradition of album-opening ass-kickers from the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" to the Replacements' "I Will Dare," "Song Against Sex" announces itself with a self-assured, unforgettable blast of pure pop, with trombones soaring, tape loops squealing, guitars and drums pushing the needle into the red, and Magnum rattling off twisted lines that -- to these ears, at least -- add up to a tale of a sexual awakening. On Avery Island is a roaring, rambunctious kitchen-sink hoot in which the most tuneful fragments of Sixties psychedelia are channeled through Magnum's charmingly whacked lyrics and crafty, inventive melodies. And on the plaintive "A Baby for Pree," Magnum boils the entire recorded works of Donovan into something so fragile and pretty it'll make you weep.

Hot Monkey is the moonlighting incarnation of Scott Taylor, a guitarist and vocalist who full-times with the Memphis-based Grifters. His work with that quartet -- rooted in loneliness, angst, and sexual frustration -- acts as a balance to the more impressionistic musings of David Shouse, the band's other singer/guitarist. At home in his basement, armed with a guitar, a drumbox, and sundry effects, Taylor sings aching, often beautiful songs draped in a dense web of fuzzball guitars, and click-clack percussion. The More Than Lazy disc (Shangri La) combines a previously released ten-inch EP (Lazy) with a generous helping of outtakes and leftover tracks. Besides offering a chance to hear some of the Grifters best songs in their embryonic states (including "Steam," "Cinnamon," and "Sain"), More Than Lazy highlights Taylor's playful, endearingly whiny vocals and his ability to twist conventional pop-song forms to fit his peculiar, endlessly catchy melodies. This is a cogent, fully realized dose of bedroom bop that towers above Lion, his first long-playing effort from a couple years back.

If four-track manufacturers ever decide to seek out endorsement deals, they'll most likely be lined up at the doorstep of Guided by Voices. The Dayton, Ohio, aggregation has spent the better part of the last ten years bashing out surrealist, Beatle-esque anthems and ballads into battered home-studio decks, and have unwittingly become the embodiment of the low-fi aesthetic. After nine albums and too many singles and EPs to count, the band is, quite naturally, taking measured steps toward in-studio perfection (as witnessed on their latest, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, a relatively polished effort). The recent solo albums by principal songwriters Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout, however -- both issued on Matador -- are rooted in the bargain-basement production ethos of GBV landmarks such as Propeller, Bee Thousand, and Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer.

In GBV, Pollard and Sprout operate in similar fashion to David Shouse and Scott Taylor in the Grifters, with one (in this case, Sprout) writing in a relatively straightforward style while the other (Pollard) ventures farther along the edges of the postpunk, neopsychedelic envelope. The pair's solo albums seldom stray from this formula: Pollard's Not in My Airforce is loaded with skewed, oddball sputterings and rousing power-chord rockers; Sprout's Carnival Boy, meanwhile, is a feast for anyone looking for more of the catchy, instantly hummable nuggets that he's been burying on every GBV release and releasing sporadically under the alias Bevil Web.

Sprout's is the better of the two albums, a sharp, half-hour burst of AM pop as filtered through an indie-rock soul. But it's Pollard's set that best illustrates the possibilities that are open to any songwriter armed with good ideas and the right equipment. He stumbles wantonly through quick-hit ruminations ("The Ash Gray Proclamation," "John Strange School") and masterfully mined chunks of mighty rock-and-pop ("Get Under It," "Girl Named Captain," "Flat Beauty"), piecing it all together without giving a good goddamn about blown notes, misplaced mikes, or off-balance EQ levels. Every idea is captured, every utterance documented. Granted, it's a dangerous way to work, but Pollard pulls it off because his short, sharp songs are full of wit, humor, and careless, offhanded abandon -- rough-edged traits that too often are polished away in the sterile confines of the studio.

Addresses: Emperor Jones, Box 49771, Austin, TX 78765; Drunken Fish, Box 460640, San Francisco, CA 94146; Drag City, Box 476867, Chicago, IL 60607; Merge, Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514; Shangri La, 1916 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104; Matador, 676 Broadway, New York,

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