Friday, July 24, 2015

"Bedhead 1992-1998": Music Review

I revisited this band by hearing these forty-five songs on the long highway between Amarillo and Tucumcari. The setting fit the mood. These tracks, dry, clear, harsh if sometimes lush, reflect Bedhead's Wichita Falls, Texas, origins. This anthology sustains defiant perspectives of a band who stared down ennui, doubt and faith. Two decades on, Bedhead's stark music holds up well. They emerged in the indie scene of the early 90s, but they kept apart from trends or irony. Their sonic perfectionism, lyrical depth and hushed vocals presented five young men with a distinctive approach, separated from louder or trendier outfits now forgotten. Here, all of Bedhead's recordings are reissued, their three studio albums, along with singles and two e.p.'s.

You may own, as I do, Bedhead's original discs. No additional tracks to those three albums appear. But a few rarities add value. Particularly strong are the debut singles, "Bedside Table" and "Living Well," from their earliest stage, in 1992. These show the band in a grittier, if slightly more familiar early-90s indie sound. They channel the guitar attack of Joy Division, while hinting at the Velvet Underground styles in pacing and chords which gained prominence on the three full-length albums on Trance Syndicate (run by King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers). They stood out from that label's acts, the raunchy attitude flaunted by their Texan peers, and the moods of college rock at the time, as slackers and grunge edged aside more introspective artists.

Matt Gallaway's 25,000 word essay (see an excerpt on Salon) appended here tells of his own love of this Dallas-based quintet. Matthew Barnhart's remastering allows every whisper, cymbal, and sigh its proper place. These renderings open up space, so these fretboard squeaks, feedback hums and studio ambiance add intimacy to the vocals of Matt Kadane. His intelligent lyrics about mortality, pain and belief (or its lack) play off the band's music--often spare, once in a while rocking out--memorably.

Each album keeps its own disc, as if to insist upon its integrity. (The set is also available in downloaded files, as reviewed by me, and in a limited-edition vinyl version.) Their first album, What Fun Life Was struts out with confidence. The band pinned its sound down from the start. "Haywire" fittingly piles up busy guitars over a buried voice and matter-of-fact vocal delivery. Its soft-loud alternation may not be novel, and Seam as a worthy peer comes to mind as of 1994. "The Unpredictable Landlord" chugs along, yearning, then chiming. These tinges of country roots enhance many moments on these discs, distinguishing them from a facile post-rock or slowcore category. The brasher remake of "Living Well" shakes up their style, which as a slight drawback throughout these songs can make them (especially if heard all at once on a long drive or lazy afternoon) seem samey. While Bedhead mastered the subdued, troubled sensations on record, sequencing threatens to lull listeners into slumber. Hearing all these songs in order, one longs all the more for lurches into speed.

"Powder" conveys propulsion and dynamics, akin to Slint. However, Bedhead rejects the scorn or poses of Pavement, even as it saunters near that band's own guitar interplay and droll vocal delivery. Matt Kadane emphasizes emotion, rather than irony. His brother Bubba and Kris Wheat contribute guitars which sidle into waltzes, as on "Unfinished," gracefully. This energy dimmed. Their second album Beheaded proved their most somber. Gone were many moments such as that Meat Puppets-inspired twang of "To the Ground" (which even if that riff irked me, at least showed their droll humor). Instead, 1996's sophomore effort sunk lower into self-examination, or self-loathing. Matt's declaimed voice resisted gentle rhythms which infused at least three of these tracks as variations on "Pale Blue Eyes." While commendable as homage, this reverent tone begins to dull by repetition. The guitars reverberating on "Felo de Se" released this tension. These Tex-Mex strums forced that song forward, into a jauntiness which clashed with the singer's stubbornness to give in or to lighten up.

Trini Martinez' glockenspiel, ringing into the emptiness, signals change, as it opens the 1998 album whose title implies the same, Transaction de Novo. Steve Albini's recording balances the mix precisely. Instruments pierce the gloom, as Albini integrates tension. He lets in the dessiccated air of the studio. The tape swirls and incorporates the rattles and jitters inherent in the band's playing and Matt's singing. A dramatic album, it varies amplified with softer songs. "Parade" floats in as if from a country dancehall's door. Then, it lurches into thunder, massing its guitars into a climactic downpour.

As Gallaway informs us, the band did not preserve its takes on tape. Instead, Bedhead recorded over each tape until they got each song down. This accounts for the lack of alternate versions. It testifies to the band's perfectionism. "Extramundane" is one of the third album's catchiest cuts. It digs into a groove until it scrapes it clean. Mathematical rhythms, as Martinez' drums and Tench Coxe's bass lock in, revel in a half-punk, half-folk song recalling the rave-ups of The Feelies. "Lepidopetera" (covered in turn by like-minded colleagues Silkworm, who praise Bedhead as part of a vanishing "weird old America") movingly narrates mortality as from a moth's point-of-view. The guitars halt and hesitate as the moth's trail is charted. The song ends: "{My guardian angel has finally arrived.}" "Psychosomatica" menaces, its guitar and bass threat matching Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook of Joy Division for threat. Yet, as with Ian Curtis at times, Matt Kadane stays calm, refusing histrionics.

Bedhead's comrades in Low, Codeine and Galaxie 500 all covered Joy Division well. But the tweak done to "Disorder" by Bedhead, inverting a key chord, ironing out the tension but keeping it from slack, slowing it down, reveals the impact of post-punk, muffled and smothered throughout much of the band's releases, impressively. Also on disc four, two unreleased Bedhead songs include a sauntering, percolating cover of "Golden Brown" by The Stranglers and the band's own "Intents + Purposes." The latter, the only "new" song from the band, fits in but adds nothing new. The albums make the band's argument best. Their remastering heightens the grainy texture of these challenging, rewarding songs. The results, handsomely curated by Numero, make this a recommended purchase.

(Amazon US 11-15-14 took a few sentences from a draft; as above to Spectrum Culture 12/1/14)

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