Such Great Depths
The 12 Best Sub Pop Releases You (Probably) Ignored
Any label that's been around as long as Sub Pop has (20 years and counting) will have some overlooked artists in its catalog. Not everyone can be Nirvana, the Postal Service, the Shins, or Fleet Foxes. The music business's law of averages dictates that misses will always outnumber hits, but—news flash—commercial failures often are much more interesting than chart dwellers.
With Sub Pop's deluxe reissue this week of Red Red Meat's underacknowledged 1995 classic Bunny Gets Paid, the time seems ripe to survey this Seattle institution's most compelling, obscure gems—many of which can be found by New Economy–crippled bargain hunters in used bins and online for much lower than their original retail price. (Know also that if we had more space and time, this piece could expand to a book-length treatise.)
Black Forest (2005)
The mostly black packaging with white tear marks is an apt visual metaphor for A Frames' bleak sonic attack. On this album, the Seattle trio ratchet up post-punk's tension to 21st-century specifications while injecting a gallows humor into their exhilaratingly grim grind. For all of its dark elements, though, Black Forest is not a soundtrack for wallowing in self-pity. Rather, it is a moving album in both senses of the word. The exuberant churn and spark of "Death Train" should've been an alt-rock-radio hit, but songs about dire endings of life generally don't click with the hive mind. Somehow, sentiments like "Nothing good ever stays/I'm living in the future tense/Absolute zero" (from "Negative") failed to win favor with the public, no matter how germane they remain. Erin Sullivan's Ian Curtis–meets– Steven Wright vocals perfectly complement the tar-dark music, over which his cutting, trebly guitars spar with Min Yee's mammoth, cranky bass lines. Lars Finberg's animated automaton beats add just the right machinelike touch to A Frames' threshing approach (hear "Black Forest III" for the ultimate expression of this impulse). Listen to Black Forest and wear your bruises like merit badges.
Trivia: A Frames drummer Lars Finberg left the band in 2006 and now leads the Intelligence, one of the city's finest rock groups.
Once We Were Trees (2001)
Spirit Stereo Frequency (2004)
Led by Brent Rademaker and Christopher Gunst, Beachwood Sparks were Californian dudes who got hyped on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Gram Parsons's oeuvre and then decided to carry that tradition into our current century. This they did on Once We Were Trees, a shiver-inducing work of country-rock with as much glitter as grit on its cowboy boots. Some songs succumb to country's common malady of sentimentality, but most of Trees shimmers and twangs with a beautiful, stoic grandeur—until the closing title track, whose freak-out points toward wilder times ahead. It's a McGuinner, for sure. Beachwood Sparks members Jimi Hey and Dave Scher eventually joined forces in All Night Radio, a project that found them dipping toes into psychedelia's cosmic pools of inspiration. ANR ditch the Sparks' rootsy approach in order to soar friction-free into the middle reaches of space (they're no Pink Floyd, but rather a postmodern Byrds circa Notorious Byrd Brothers, enhanced by the Moody Blues' rococo flourishes and vocal harmonies to cry for). Spirit Stereo Frequency gently alters your mind, with no ill side effects.
Trivia: Scher has served as Interpol's touring keyboardist.
Steven Jesse Bernstein was a mentally troubled poet who killed himself in 1991. Prison is a posthumous document of his raw-wound verses, cobbled into magnificence by production master Steve Fisk. "No No Man (Part One)"—the only composition finished before SJB's death—is one of the greatest lead-off tracks ever: Fisk's film-noir-jazz/E-Z listening/ orchestral backdrop provides a thrilling proscenium from which Bernstein relates a tale of sleazy debauchery and piercing self-deprecation. Prison leaves no doubt why luminaries such as William S. Burroughs, Kurt Cobain, and Oliver Stone respected him. While Bernstein was in serious pain of many sorts during his 40 years, he got enough bleak, prickly brilliance on paper/tape, abetted by Fisk's brilliantly sympathetic accompaniment, to leave this indelible artifact.
Trivia: Bernstein was never fond of his face.
999 Levels of Undo (2001)
This album is Steve Fisk's reward for being Sub Pop's all-around badass producer/instrumentalist. It's self-indulgent, yes, but who doesn't want a genius to indulge his self? Only fools. 999 Levels of Undo is essentially Fisk letting his imagination run riot with the electronic gadgets and computer software in his studio. The result is one of those bizarre, unclassifiable works that sell squat, but that will be discussed in worshipful tones by heads for decades. (It's also the sound of Sub Pop's accountants frowning.) Fisk's facility for funk sporadically surfaces, but a menagerie of peculiar textures and baffling arrangements mostly confounds dancing. Ultimately, you end up scratching your noggin in 7/4 time. I may be alone on this, but Undo is my favorite Sub Pop release ever.
Trivia: Fisk also played keyboards in Pigeonhed (see below) and Pell Mell, the latter of which cut similarly overlooked gems The Bumper Crop and Flow for SST Records.
5 Style (1995)
These Chicago white boys replicate the N'awlins funk of the Meters and the struttin' jams of Billy Preston with frightening authenticity. But did you care? No, you and billions of others showed stunning apathy toward 5 Style. Torqued instrumental-funk workouts just weren't selling in the mid-'90s like they are now. Guitarist Bill Dolan—who later played with the equally slept-on Heroic Doses and the less-slept-on Fire Theft—chikka-wakka'd and spangled his way into the funk pantheon with panache, while Tortoise sticksman John Herndon channeled Zigaboo Modeliste with precision. And "I Told Ya"? Best zoned-out dub track ever to receive the Sub Pop imprimatur. 5ive Style are the Above Average White Band history forgot—till now.
Trivia: 5ive Style bassist LeRoy Bach did time in Liz Phair's studio band and with Wilco, and keyboardist Jeremy Jacobsen became the Lonesome Organist.
As Syd Barrett acolytes go, Jennifer Gentle mastermind Marco Fasolo is no Robyn Hitchcock. That's why the Italian guitarist/vocalist/producer labors in obscurity and Valende's faint ripple of notoriety five years ago has receded. A pity, as Valende puts up a funhouse mirror to various '60s psych tropes, all of which are memorably frosted by Fasolo's munchkin vox. Amid all the mad-as-Syd capers, Jennifer Gentle deliver an absolutely gorgeous ballad, "Circles of Sorrow," which I described in a review in these pages as "an acid-refracted glimpse of what a Brian Wilson/Skip Spence collaboration circa 1968 would sound like." It gives your goose bumps shivers.
Trivia: Jennifer Gentle cover "Meccanica" on the Franco Battiato tribute album What's Your Function?
Microminiature Love (2003)
Excavated from obscurity 35 years after it was recorded for and rejected by Sire Records (although De Stijl got there a year earlier with a vinyl reissue), Microminiature Love gusts in from the turmoil-y Vietnam War era. It's a period piece, but it still stings with urgency. Michael Yonkers laces his trebly, troublemaking garage rock with Phil Ochs–like vibrato while generating a distinctive, open-tuned guitar tone. "Boy in the Sandbox" convincingly re-creates the sound of heavy incoming ammo, while lines like "Ain't much that I understand/Ain't much that makes me feel grand" from "Smile Awhile" reflect the album's lyrical tenor. Michael Yonkers Band's off-kilter take on post-Nuggets rock bears similarities to the Monks, but, unlike that cult group, MYB are to parties as napalm is to skin care.
Trivia: Yonkers has lived in severe pain since 1971, when a wall of computer equipment fell and crushed his back, and the dye from his X-rays caused his spine to degenerate.
A true oddity in Sub Pop's voluminous catalog, Pigeonhed is a weird dance album fueled by Shawn Smith's affecting blue-eyed soul stylings—which predate Jamie Lidell's by about a decade—and Steve Fisk's production (Fisk is this company's MVP). It wouldn't be stretching it to say Pigeonhed is the sexiest disc in SP's history—yes, even sexier than God's Balls. People drone on about Afghan Whigs member Greg Dulli's stud cred, but Pigeonhed beat him nads down (sonically, at least). Seriously, Smith is like this freakish Caucasian hybrid of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Prince. The music here is funky, slinky, and sometimes wonky, and it ideally should come with a tube of KY—as should its listeners.
Trivia: Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil (?!) contributed to Pigeonhed.
Bunny Gets Paid (1995)
Sub Pop does us a solid by reissuing this classic album with a seven-track bonus disc (which includes alternate takes, covers of Low and A Flock of Seagulls, and a previously unreleased song). Red Red Meat hailed from Chicago, but they sounded like they dwelled in the Mississippi Delta area—while still being cognizant of avant-garde musical developments. Their roots had wires sprouting from them, and they were twisted into convoluted shapes. Bunny Gets Paid is a blues-rock opus with a yearning ache at its core, communicated via guitarist Tim Rutili's deeply affecting slur. Musically, Bunny Gets Paid recalls the Rolling Stones' country-esque fare off Beggars Banquet or Royal Trux at their straightest. Back in the day, the disc mostly won the hearts of unconventional-rock fans, but one can imagine John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters nodding in approval over Red Red Meat's stark, powerful transformation of their own grainy, groiny innovations.
Trivia: Rutili, Ben Massarella, and Brian Deck later formed the fab post-Americana outfit Califone.
Severe Exposure (1995)
Six Finger Satellite's second album hit with a savage, caustic impact. Like some laboratory experiment in which Big Black's propulsive power electronics melds with Chrome and Killing Joke's pitiless guitar sandblasting, Severe Exposure lives up to its title. J. Ryan fulfills the Steve Albini role to the hilt with larynx-tearing bellows, while John MacLean shreds on guitar and keyboards like a politician who has a lot to hide. In a way, this album is like the next evolutionary step for Sub Pop followers who liked their rock rugged and fuzzy—6FS translated that Jesus Lizard/Mudhoney steez into a more futuristic lexicon. Not enough people were ready for this hot plate of anger, though, and Six Finger Satellite eventually faded like so many rave reviews in the yellowing pages of Your Flesh.
Trivia: MacLean now records dance music for DFA Records as the Juan MacLean.
Burned Mind (2004)
Sure, Wolf Eyes have received hosannas from celebs like Thurston Moore and Andrew W.K., but somehow they couldn't convert them into fame and fortune—or even a place in the queue for NPR bumper music. That's because
Burned Mind is a dirty bomb of noise anti-rock, a saber-toothed tiger among widdle puddy tats. Play these convulsive cacophonies on the radio, and you'll get fired; play 'em in your apartment, and you'll get evicted; play 'em for your girlfriend, and you'll (probably) get dumped. (You might say this album is an ordeal breaker.) Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman once told The Stranger: "[Wolf Eyes' music is] very expressive, very liberating; it makes me want to kick shit, and rock 'n' roll needs to be about that." It took titanic balls for Sub Pop to issue Burned Mind. The least you could do is lend an ear to its noirish abattoir symphonies.
Trivia: Wolf Eyes' set at the 2006 Wooden Octopus Festival sent waves of pain through a certain Stranger music writer's testicles.
This story has been updated since its original publication.