The two stray tracks on various artists’ anthologies by this Olympia combo (Corin Tucker, guitar and vocals, Tracy Sawyer, bass and occasional drums) are as fierce—as unforgiving, and as unforgiven—as anything I’ve heard in ages. These songs sound anonymous, almost found; appearing alongside tracks by the likes of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Unwound, Mecca Normal, Bratmobile, 7 Year Bitch, and Kreviss, the music simply seems part of an ordinary rock ‘n’ roll conversation, at least in Olympia. (“The birthplace of rock,” it says on the back of the Kill Rock Stars CD, as if rock ‘n’ roll could be born anywhere, again and again, as if for the first time—and of course it can.)
“My Red Self,” about menstruation, is modest and strong; “Baby’s Gone” is riveting. A single, naked fuzztone makes a backdrop for what you might call testifying, if you can merge the old meaning of testifying in church with testifying in court. The same absolute need to be heard that drives the Mekon’s voice-and-stamping-foot “The Building” powers this performance, which doesn’t seem minimalist in any way; rather, it gets bigger as it goes on, until, near the end (“I did what you told me to/Now I’m dead”), it seems to try to explode but can’t. The pressure is enormous, and passed on straight.
2. Heavenly, “She Says”/”Escort Crash on Marston Street” (K Records, Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507)
A four-person band from Oxford, England, led by singer Amelia Fletcher, late of Talulah Gosh and still playing with the sweetest, most barbed warble in pop: her heaven is not for the innocent. An album, Le Jardin de Heavenly, is due, but for the moment this single spins on and on.
3/4. Walter Mosley, White Butterfly (Norton, $19.95), and John Lee Hooker, “This Land Is Nobody’s Land,” from More Real Folk Blues—The Missing Album (Chess/MCA)
In Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries—White Butterfly, set in 1956 and the third in the series, is the most effective so far—what’s at stake is the unwritten history of postwar Los Angeles.
Mosley, a man in his 30s writing in the voice of a retired black detective who would now be past 70, is writing this history from the inside out: from inside Watts. First appearing in the ’40s, Easy Rawlins is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as private eye; his skin and shuffle may be cover, but the wariness of his movements carries a greater charge than any scene of violence. Pages can curl with tension even when nothing is happening. Mosley isn’t much of a plotter, or even a storyteller; the books work in moods that shift like weather, on the glacial but certain apprehension of a society changing, though not in any direction anyone can control, or that anyone is necessarily going to like. Perhaps more than in the most extreme and Afrocentric rap, white people are foreigners in these books, and in Rawlins’ L.A., and black people are exiles. “This land is no one’s land,” John Lee Hooker sang in 1966, a year after the Watts riots—the tune was a slow, improvised blues, a blunt reply to Woody Guthrie, and it remained unreleased until 1991—“This land/Is your burying ground.” Easy Rawlins’ next appearance should place him in just about that year, if not that territory.
5. Steely & Clevie, Play Studio One Vintage (Heartbeat)
Classic late-’60s reggae, cut last year by the leading dancehall producers and rhythm section, backing Theophilus Beckford, Alton Ellis, the Clarendonians, and more. The music is all definition, like a perfect black and white print of a ’40s film noir following the dead video color of the nightly news.
6. Sonic Youth, Dirty (DGC)
I like the way Thurston Moore snaps “I believe Anita Hill/That judge’ll rot in hell” on “Youth Against Fascism.” It’s so peremptory. It’s so convincing.
7. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes and Crucify (Atlantic)
In a year or so, Amos’ attempt to find her own voice somewhere between those of Donovan and Kate Bush may sound impossibly arch and contrived; her version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” on the Crucify EP, already does. But that’s also what’s compelling about it. Breathy, precious, arty, and cool, Amos can get under your skin, and then rip.
8. Ashtray, Ashtray (Shoe Records, P.O. Box 4229, Philadelphia, PA 19101)
Bare-bones lyricism, crude male and female vocal leads, and a guitarist who can play his string all the way out.
9. Chris Hunt, director, The Search for Robert Johnson (Sony Music Video, $19.98)
Willie Mae Powell was Johnson’s lover in the ’30s; the look on her still-beautiful face when she listens to Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which mentions her, is worth a lot, as is blues researcher Mack McCormick’s highly sophisticated analysis of Johnson’s psyche. They may even be worth sitting through a lot of stilted, overrehearsed interviews and endless takes of narrator John Hammond, Jr., strangling Johnson’s songs.
10. Bono, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” from Honeymoon in Vegas—Music from the Original Soundtrack (Epic Soundtrax)
This set mixes by-the-numbers Elvis covers (Billy Joel’s “All Shook Up,” Ricky Van Shelton’s “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”) with surprises: a thrilling ride through “Suspicious Minds” with Dwight Yoakam and an uncredited Beth Anderson, a torchy, Mary Lou Barton–styled “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise” by Trisha Yearwood, a hipster “Jailhouse Rock” from John Mellencamp. The stunner is Bono’s twisted reading of the ultimate Big E show-closer, here accompanied principally by an old Elvis interview running in the background. As Bono climbs the golden ladder of the song toward a falsetto so desperate it’s all too obvious who he can’t help falling in love with, the man himself—or the boy; Elvis sounds very young, and completely guileless—talks about a book called Poems That Touch the Heart. After two minutes, Bono fades into the ether, and from out of it comes that familiar voice: “Yessir, I’ll be looking forward to coming back. Yessir, I’m looking forward to it.”
Artforum, July 1992