Less our recently-announced six week series of country music shows (Schlitz Kickin’ Country) cast us as the Twin Cities’ own Bob’s Country Bunker (“We got both kinds”), we’ve gone in an unexpected new direction for live music in the shop – Local groups the Funeral and the Twilight and CLAPS will play sets at seven and eight on Friday evening, each celebrating the release of a new album (vinyl!) this summer.
CLAPS’ new album on the reliably awesome Guilt Ridden Pop label, Wreck, was introduced to me as “cold wave” but is more fairly described as minimalist snyth pop. I have never been a “genre listener”, in as much as my taste is so cautiously eclectic as to prohibit me from ever collecting the genuine deep cuts that really define various genres, and so I am generally suspicious of fanatics. Still, synth pop fanatics are feeling, um, fanatic about this record and I’m understanding their rave reviews the more I play the record. Unlike New Science, the band’s danceable debut EP, Wreck has feet that move on its own. It walks around your mind, first melodically and then eventually by way of the tiny, comfortable universalities in its simple lyrics. It could, with the airplay it deserves, be a record that draws a larger audience into a tinier subset, rather than the other way around.
I have recently become acquainted with Phil Nusbaum, host of KBEM’s Bluegrass Saturday Morning, an enormously popular and surprisingly influential local program on, um, Saturday mornings. We have been discussing a one-time vinyl segment on the program – Coming this fall! – and also possibly a short collection of other local music bearing familiarity to bluegrass. In talking to Phil I was surprised by his insightful remarks on other genres of music, ranging from classical to 60s garage singles. I guess I thought he would listen to nothing but bluegrass all day. In fact, I thought he wouldn’t do anything else at all. So here’s a guy basically synonymous with bluegrass in a town synonymous for great music, and he’s not a genre listener.
But there are a lot of people like that – I know because I see the records they buy every week, or month, or whatever. Sometimes you can tell when these guys sell some records because all of the sudden the shop is filled with cold wave or bluegrass or something.
The lesson is that Sara Abdelaal, Patrick Donohoe and Jed Smentek, the trio we know as CLAPS, probably listen to a lot more than minimalist synth pop than we’re likely to guess from a first listen to Wreck, their first full-length which is in shops now and is sure to establish the trio as synonymous with the genre here in town. I think I’ve sold records to at least one of them, but I don’t remember what they were (Contrary to what some people say, the clerk at the record store really doesn’t pay super close attention to what you’re buying).
Smentek told the City Pages last year that “there’s no record store that you can walk into and ask about some rare minimalist synth band,” and I’ll agree. Maybe if we went to Tallin, Estonia (John Maus’ favorite city to play, according to his kick ass tell-it-like-it-is Pitchfork interview recently highlighted on this blog). Maybe not. I guess it’s a genre of music I associate with Eastern Europe and black turtlenecks. I blame this guy:
And if I were Smentek I would be even more assured no record store is going to embrace minimalist synth music after one in your band’s own hometown posts that picture. Of course, in defense of Hymie’s Records we’re going to be unable to sincerely discuss a wide spectrum of rare records, simply because there’s only so much you can know about, um, everything. Million – tens of millions if not more – records have been made over the past century and we can offer to you only a selection of even the broadest genre (like “jazz”). Get into minute divisions – that, for instance, there’s an arguable difference between minimalist synth pop and cold wave and, um, bluegrass – and any sort of reliable expertise is a tall order for any shop.
My entire experience with synth pop standard bearers Depeche Mode is a mix tape that a girl gave me in high school after we broke up. I think they were the only band on the tape. I don’t know for sure because I never listened to it, just as I’m sure she never listened to 90 minutes of J Church though I really, really thought she oughtta. The truth is the closest thing we’ve got in our collection at home is probably the handful of Joy Division and New Order 12″s and albums we own, but since neither one of us has ever been particularly attached to the labels we have to attach to bands these days we can get by with the Potter Stewart standard for good music: We know it when we see it. Or hear it.
Wreck has been enormously popular here in the shop, and it’s always fun when the record that brings customers to the counter – “What is this?” – is local. It’s on it’s way to be the best selling (at Hymie’s) local disc of 2011 given how often people ask about it. Some people say, “Gosh, I would have guessed it came from 1982” while others are just impressed by the sound (It’s very well-produced, courtesy of Mystery Palace’s Ryan Olcott and very very fun to play loud). I think the thing that catches people’s ears most of all is the knack this trio has for creating compelling melodies, and that’s why I think if we could all sneak a peek at their record collections we would find all sorts of things from the Beach Boys to Saint Saens.
Of course the melody drives each track – That’s all you’re left with if you’re going to be a minimalist (unless you’re talking about John Cage’s 4’33”, I guess). It’s not like we can get lost in the arrangements. These people are moving three pieces of furniture around a big room, when you think about it, but the thing is they’re really good at it. “Book of Love” (above) starts out a little too electronic for me but finishes with hypnotic charm and “House”, the most minimal of the album’s nine tracks, builds and builds a big song out of next to nothing just by incorporating a couple memorable melodies.
A bass guitar does sneak into a few tracks on Wreck (Including “Book of Love” and “Across the Floor” (the track before that). I don’t know if that’s something heretical like Dylan playing with the Hawks at Newport or the time the Clash were in a TV commercial or something (weren’t they in a commercial?). It’s pretty essential to “Book of Love”, even if I didn’t notice until the third or fourth listen. The next track on the album is alien in a slinky Star Trek alien kind of way that something in the backing reminds me of a Mega Man melody, but “Book of Love” is genuinely warm. At one point Donohoe sings “I need your warmth”. That’s in the 80s-est “In my Dreams”, where he also sings “If I could spend, my love, my time with you I believe / I could be happy forever more” as though they borrowed the line from Harold Arlen. This isn’t a spooky, silicone chip-surrounded shut-in but a dreaming lover dreaming of his lover.
Electronic music is easily dismissed as “inhuman” but even our rootsy-est music is often electronic. Take away the microphone and Little Walter’s “Juke” is a cat of an entirely different color, and even Alan Lomax’s celebrated field recordings are the product of technological wonders. CLAPS performs everything live on analog synthesizers. Nothing is looped and nothing is programmed. There’s a devotion to genuine performance that jibes well with the album’s lyrical emphasis on regrets and uncertainties. “It all meant nothing until today / and time never meant much but time to work” Donohoe laments in “Until Today”. “House”, the next track, dives right into the same territory although I really can’t discern a lot of the lyrics through Donohoe’s reverb-laden vocals (It’s the hardest track on the record to understand). A lot of the lyrics in Wreck could have come out of Astral Weeks, and even several musical passages like the simply sweet “Eyes Remain”:
The Funeral and the Twilight will open. They are celebrating the release of their new album, Sullen Life /// Blighted Death, but I wasn’t able to get to the LP release show at 7th St Entry last week because I lost my wallet (Remember?). I have just discovered you can check it out on their bandcamp page here, and you can also count on them to be awesome. Why? Because John from Empty’s Tapes promised me they are, and he’s never been wrong before.
Both bands will be here Friday at 7 pm. Both albums will be for sale. The event is free and open to all ages.