Quick Review (LP): One Less Heartless to Fear by Shipping News

Shipping News
One Less Heartless to Fear
Noise Pollution/Karate Body; 2010

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Half A House”, “(Morays or) Demons”

Shipping News speeds things up and unleashes a little bit of the ol’ Albini charm here, but I gotta admit, I’ve always been a sucker for Shipping News’ slower, brooding side. Therefore, I wasn’t immediately thrilled by “The Delicate” when it was released a few months back. And to be clear, OLHTF is not really a new LP so much as a live document. It contains a few tracks from their last LP proper, Flies the Fields, and features a solid set of otherwise unreleased material. The good news is that the old tracks sound great here, and the new stuff presents a side to the Noble/Mueller partnership that I hadn’t thought of since “Shiner.” Overall, I’m a big fan of the record’s concept. More bands (indie ones specifically) should take a step back from the studio and let their fans hear unreleased songs in process. I’m not so much talking about “LIVE” albums, greatest hits collections performed on stage, I’m talking about single-take sets of old, new, and weird. I could get used to Shipping News (and plenty of other bands) releasing something like this every other year or so. Dig the cover art too.

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Placeholder: Rodan live video

Going on vacation, back to posting on 9/27. For now, enjoy this video of Rodan playing “The Everyday World of Bodies” from 1994. Glorious.

Peel-ology: Rodan’s 1994 BBC Session

Peel-ology is where I write about some or another Peel session. The Peel session has special importance for me because of the “mystique” that surrounds it. Oftentimes, bands come to the Peel session with a small set of songs that have never seen official release. For fans of arcane indie rock, that’s like the Holy Grail…

rodan (e wolf) Rodan’s 1994 Peel session holds a special place in my heart. On one hand, it was my introduction to the work of John Peel, the first time I had ever heard of a “Peel” session at all. On the other hand, it is the only hint of what one of my all-time favorite bands might have sounded like on their second LP. While all of Rodan’s members went on to have prolific careers in other musical ventures (including the Mueller/Noble vehicle Shipping News), there was a definite magic realized by Jason Noble, Jeff Mueller, Tara Jane O’Neill, and Kevin Coultas on their Bob Weston produced debut Rusty.

  • “Sangre” leads things off. It’s a slow, brooding, almost meditative track, featuring O’Neill’s distinctively moaning vocals and some excellent high-fret guitar work from Jason Noble. I swear, when this song kicks in, I see thunder. That’s the only way I know how to put it.
  • “Big Things, Little Things” might be the closest Rodan ever came to “poppy”, figuring brightly between the other two tracks here. I love the bass work here. In my book, TJ is one of the best indie bassists of all time.
  • For all the greatness of the other tracks, “Before the Train” most successfully captures what made this band great. A 10-minute-plus instrumental (with the exception of the spoken “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe”), the song evolves from elastic, visceral post-punk into quiet, spectral neo-classicism, only to re-emerge in a furious explosion of noisy, angular fury. This track contains, in a nutshell, everything that made Rodan special.
  • Kevin Coultas’ drumming totally blows me away. Rodan went through 3 drummers in their existence, but it was Coultas’ imperfect-in-all-the-right-ways work that transformed the band from mere post-rock into epic chamber-punk. His drumming helped the band achieve the monstrosity of sound that their name implies.
  • It’s John Peel who, between tracks, mentions that the band will be returning to the US in just a few weeks in order to complete their follow-up LP. I guess a lot can happen in 2+ months.

So there you have it. In September of 1994, the band played its last show and fractured into several different bands, including June of 44, Rachel’s, Sonora Pine, and Retsin (Shipping News & Tara Jane O’Neil’s solo work would come later). There are a few low-quality bootlegs floating around that feature other, untitled tracks, some of which made it onto the debut records of the above-mentioned bands. But this stunning Peel session is the only studio indication of what might have been.

you can download the whole Peel session from this site

Career In Brief: June of 44

I came to June of 44 via Rodan. I became a huge fan of Jeff Mueller’s first band after hearing their album Rusty in early 1995, only to learn that they had broken up shortly after its release. Fortunately, the creative forces behind that musical beast were only getting started, and just a few months later June of 44’s Engine Takes to the Water hit the streets. Mueller joined forces with members of Codeine, Lungfish, and Hoover, and the band was termed an indie rock “supergroup” at the time. Mueller could sort of be seen as continuing to carry the mantle of Rodan’s angular, slightly cerebral post-rock with June of 44, but it also gradually became clear that he was looking to move beyond it. The band continued releasing records at a pretty frequent rate, and they started exploring unorthodox instrumentation and incorporating the musical influence of jazz fusion outfits like late-era Miles Davis. The band quietly called it quits in 2000. They have often been cheekily termed “boat rock” for incorporating manifold nautical themes into their music, but for me and other fans, their “hipster prog” was one of the most appealing things about the band. Four Great Points is their masterpiece, but I think Engine Takes to the Water remains the best introduction to the band, so start there.

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

Engine Takes to the Water [1995] (B+): Recorded right on the heels of Mueller’s stint in Rodan, this is the band at its most Slint-inspired, and I think some of these tracks may even be the result of leftover sketches from Rodan’s final days. That being said, Engine Takes to the Water is no mere Mueller vehicle. The creative influences of all the members are highly evident, from the trumpet work of Fred Erskine to Doug Scharin’s thunderous and precise drumming. For all of the dynamic wonder of “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, the best tracks are the most subdued. “I Get My Kicks for You” and “Sink Is Busted” really shine in retrospect. R: “I Get My Kicks for You”, “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, “Sink Is Busted”. (buy from Amazon)

Tropics & Meridians [1996] (B): It didn’t take long for June of 44 to establish themselves as indie rocks heroes, and Tropics & Meridians opens with what was probably their grandest musical statement, the lumbering, tension-driven, cybernetic post-rock of “Anisette.” “Lusitania” considers things maritime and tragic in a vein quite similar to the band’s first record, but it is “Lawn Bowler”, a rustic, rickety, shadow-laced instrumental that shows the band striving for something different. “June Leaf” is good but typical, and “Arms Over Arteries” recalls the finer, quieter moments of Engine Takes to the Water. The final track, “Sanctioned in a Birdcage”, is a curious affair, the band’s first approach to the noise-jam approach they would take on later releases. R: “Anisette”, “Arms Over Arteries”. (buy from Amazon)

The Anatomy of Sharks EP [1997] (A-): The Anatomy of Sharks marks a creative turning point for June of 44. While the highlight of this 3-song extended player is most definitely the uncharted nautical epic “Sharks & Sailors”, the record’s second track, “Boom”, is a harbinger of things to come. Essentially the band’s first foray into jazz fusion, it features an exotic trumpet passage belted above repetitive drum rhythm. Final track “Seemingly Endless Steamer” should not be missed. R: “Sharks & Sailors”. (buy from Amazon)

The Four Great Points [1998] (A): 4GP is the record where June of 44 achieved a winning synthesis of their angular post-rock and their fusion-inspired jazzier imaginings. Album opener “Information & Belief” delivers like a prettier “Anisette”, while “Cut Your Face” blazes ahead at a faster pace than we’re used to, but it’s first-listen head-scratchers like “Lifted Bells”, “Shadow Pugilist”, and “Air #17” that keep you coming back for more. This is a great record, equal-parts post-Slint hard rock and post-Tortoise sonic landscaping. Highly recommended. R: “Information & Belief”, “Lifted Bells”, “Air #17”. (buy from Amazon)

Anahata [1999] (C): Suffering from a sub-standard recording and a hap-hazard approach to song-writing, Anahata comes off as the band’s attempt to take the trance-inducing experimentalism of the last few recordings to the next level. Opening with an apparent re-write of The Anatomy of Sharks’ “Boom”, “Wear Two Eyes (Boom)” jumps right into things but fails to live up to the opening track standards that, by now, June of 44’s fans have come to expect from them. While the rest of the record has its moments, with “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-Polar” both achieving success in the band’s new style, attempts to write more traditional songs, like “Cardiac Atlas” and “Southeast of Boston”, come off with little impact. R: “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist”, “Equators to Bi-Polar.” (buy from Amazon)

In the Fishtank EP [1999] (B): Thankfully, after the disappointing Anahata, the band closes its career on a high-note with the spontaneously-conceived In the Fishtank EP. Given 2 days to record, this is where the band captured more perfectly the sort of open-ended, live feel that they attempted on Anahata. The results range from meditative and sublime (“Henry’s Revenge”) to energetic and propulsive (“Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”) to languid and funky (“Every Free Day a Good Day”). The rest of the EP consists of a cycle of tracks (“Pregenerate”-“Generate”-“Degenerate”) that succeeds in lending the record a necessary overall unity. R: “Henry’s Revenge”, “Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”. (buy from Amazon)

other/rarities: The band released most of their recorded output on their major releases, with one notable exception: the magnificent Rivers & Plains”, released in 1995 on the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation Compilation CD. This track is well worth seeking out (sample it below), and is perhaps the best single recording June of 44 achieved. There are live recordings of album tracks to be found in different places, and there was also an extremely rare “Magic Eye” single recording of a song titled “1000 Paper Cranes” credited to June of 44, although it sounds like it was probably only Jeff Mueller on an answering machine.