Friday, April 6, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Golden Calves

I organize my record collection chronologically so I can keep in tune with the space-time continuum of music. It’s like they’re all part of an epic, ongoing improvisation. Some years --1972 and 1970, for example -- are like long crescendos, with dozens of brilliant and very different albums, and others are more like brief bridges – 1962, 1979. The 90s are the biggest gap in my stack. This is less a reflection of the quality of music from that decade than a document of my musical life. Or, more accurately, its near-death. That’s when I divested myself of all my LPs, and most musicians stopped releasing them. That’s when, not long after I got my first dial-up Internet account, I unloaded all my CDs and cassettes, and embarked on ten long years of digitally-squashed songs crammed into a piece of plastic the size of a cigarette pack, and squeaking out of a puny pair of ear buds.
            Now that I’m back into vinyl with a vengeance, it’s nice to run across end-of-the-Millennium artifacts from artists who never gave up on the medium. It’s like being able to relive a life I missed. Such is the case with the first release of the year from the Woodsist label, Golden Calves’ Money Band + Century Band. It’s a double-record reissue of an early project by James Jackson Toth, a DIY-scene pioneer and hero who’s released an untold number of albums and singles under a bunch of different names, Wooden Wand and Vanishing Voice being the best known, relatively speaking. Toth put these recordings out on vinyl in 1996, a year when I seriously believed LPs were no longer being made. Not only that, he paid for it by cashing in his meal plan at college, thereby precluding himself from being able to “eat a proper lunch for an entire semester,” according to the reissue’s liner notes, which Toth wrote. “I was eighteen years old,” Toth writes. “I was taking drugs.”
Listening to the record 16 years later, I’m stunned by the bravery and the dedication, and I’m grateful to him for keeping grooves in the music, and vice versa. This is music that has to be heard on vinyl. Its bones and structure are built with a single acoustic guitar, a sound that thrives in the warmth of wax, and this sound brings a fleshy folky-ness to Toth’s compositions, though they seem to owe more to improvisational jazz and Africa and rhythms and trance and spooky film soundtracks and noise than Joan Baez or Tim Hardin. He fleshes out these odd-shaped and strummed melodies with layers of weird sounds, electric guitars drenched in static, sustained notes from a cheap Casio synth, screechy saxophone, atonal piano, even the hushed rhythm of an adding machine. And his voice, soft and shaky, cracks a bit here and there betraying his youth and unprofessionalness, in the best sense of the word, in a punk-meets-folk sense, as he sings surreal lyrics such as “electric stacks of glass” and “my bacteria forms” over and over again, like some sort of AIDS-era mantra. In other words, it’s trippy as hell, but gentle and chill. I keep coming back to it, and with each listen it reveals more and more, despite its simplicity and primitiveness.
Toth is at once egotistical and self-deprecating in his account of the music on these rereleases. “These are not perfect records,” he writes. “Perhaps worse than so-called ‘naïve art’ is ‘only-marginally-informed art’ … I should have let my talents marinate for a while before rushing out records … But fuck it, man. I was hopelessly arrogant then and remain so today. Why else would I greenlight this fucking thing?” Thank god he did. The original releases were few in number and are almost impossible to find anymore. But with this, Woodsist has offered up an important document, a missing link in the unstoppable life beat of music. Real music that you can hold in your hands and that sounds right in your ears. Toth is one who wouldn’t let it go away.

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