Album Reviews

Supreme Dicks – Breathing and Not Breathing

on November 02, 2011, 8:00am
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Even in a world overflowing with reissues, special editions, and collectors edition box sets, Supreme Dicks seems like an odd choice for a retrospective collection. For one, they only released one single in their recording history (a double B-side, no less). Their shifting lineup and instrumentation sometimes included both turntables and theremin, all under genre appellations of freak folk or noise rock. The Amherst, MA pals of Lou Barlow and Dinosaur Jr. got their first gig in New York, according to legend, when Dino guitarist/vocalist J Mascis didn’t feel like playing CBGB’s and sent the Dicks in their stead.

From the beginning, Supreme Dicks were appreciated by fellow musicians and critics rather than any sort of commercial fan base. Thurston Moore reportedly talked them up to the press; they would open for Dinosaur Jr., and Beck and Neutral Milk Hotel members would occasionally turn up on stage to collaborate. Their two full-lengths, 1993’s The Unexamined Life (which we have available to stream here) and 1996’s The Emotional Plague could and should be cited as influences on bands like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Jackie-O Motherfucker, the No-Neck Blues Band, and countless others. That said, a band with two albums and a few singles/EPs (no matter how influential in a weird scene) seems an odd candidate for a box set. Nevertheless, here it is, Breathing and Not Breathing, collecting everything from archival, unreleased recordings to the studio releases, a treasure trove of weird, psychedelic goodness.

The first CD in the four-disc collection, The Unexamined Life, sets the patterns and templates right away. Being that the Dicks, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. all formed within a five-year stretch, it’s not surprising that Mark Hanson, Daniel Oxenberg, Steve Shavel, Jon Shere, and Jim Spring carry a lot of that same zeitgeist. There are empty sets of ramshackle toms and lingering guitar (“In a Sweet Song”), washes of distortion and feedback (“The Sun’s Bells”), and eccentric, laid-back talk-singing full of mixed messages (“Jack-O-Lantern”). But there’s something inherently different about The Unexamined Life, something less interested in cool and more interested in pushing out into whatever happens next. There’s less control in their controlled chaos.

In “The Arabian Song”, the off-key, fluttering recorders and atmospheric guitars are playful, but the grumbling, wheezing, bassy feedback is anything but, the band interested in formless moaning way more than a hook. On “Jack-O-Lantern”, the chaotic overlapping vocal lines come together to a cloyingly sweet conclusion. They let things drift in a mesmeric sea, as on the existentially odd “Azure Dome”, where mantras and wobbly feedback reign supreme. “The Forest Song (or Especially When the October Wind With Frosty Fingers, Punishes My Hair)” not only lays the groundwork for Sufjan Stevens’ maniacally long song titles, but also Animal Collective’s early recordings’ ability to combine howling feedback and folksy acoustics.

Workingman’s Dick follows, a disc of archival recordings dating before that first LP. From “Ranada’s Demon” and onward, the set takes a serious turn towards the heavily psychedelic, sonorous bass and plinking guitar lilting with scattershot tom work and laconic, misfitting vocals. There’s a call back to Velvet Underground in material like “The Language You Learnt”, impassioned, subdued vocals working alongside swirling, distorted guitars and droning rhythms. The collection of tunes spanning 1987-1989 finds its hooks, too, though, as on “All That Remains”, an epic, scrambled Americana, bassy vocals, and storm-spilt instrumentation building to a powerfully cathartic release. Later, the melancholic acoustic prettiness of “In the Whippoorwill’s Sad Orchard” sounds like a minimalist Skygreen Leopards, and “Flaming Day of the Locusts” leaves a scorched earth the way few noise bands can.

The Emotional Plague acts as disc three, streaming in and out of coherence like David Berman on an acid trip. “Synaesthesia” lures in listeners with flashes of melodic chording, but the moody feedback and xylophone pervade. “Cuchulain (Blackbirds Loom)” introduces a melancholic vocal line that seems at least partially disinterested a la Silver Jews or Pavement. “Swell Song” similarly buries an affected vocal part in crumbling proto-rock. The shuddering shamanism of “A Donkey’s Burial in a Tower on a Mirage” relies largely on a droning single guitar note, a strange story unfolding alongside sporadic, Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack guitar lines. “Each moment of splendor grows in significance,” a seemingly lost man mumbles as guitars tingle and lurch and an electronic heartbeat’s death rattle plummets.

This Is Not a Dick & Rarities closes out the box set, collecting an Italian-only released EP and a handful of rare and unreleased tracks. “Invasion From Mars” sears and churns, haunting, moaning sounds mixing with square-wave effects, coming together for a haunted house party. But just when this seems like Supreme Dicks at their least focused, “Summertime (Childhood’s Impossible Now)” returns to the VU vibe, a happy bass line and lingering guitar forming a sweetly nod-able, cheery, little song. Then “Mark’s Phonecall From Orgoneland” returns to chaos, xylophone, hammers, a strange tale told through a megaphone, and misplayed toy guitars.

In short, Supreme Dicks prove in this box set that they’re one of the few bands in recent history to be able to match Sonic Youth’s ability to play both to purely experimental weirdness and structured listenability (though perhaps the Dicks lean a little further to the former rather than trying to blend equal halves). Despite all of the weirdness, this is a band that deserved to have their story told, to receive mass attention rather than merely cult status, and this box set should achieve that.

Essential Tracks: “Jack-O-Lantern”, “Synaesthesia”, “A Donkey’s Burial In a Tower On a Mirage”

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