Down Is Up discusses music that falls slightly under the radar of our usual coverage: demos, self-releases, and output from small or overlooked communities. Today, Jenn Pelly surveys some potentially overlooked 2014 records from the ever-growing vinyl reissues market—featuring D.C. trio Slant 6, Parisian post-punk artist Lizzy Mercier Descloux, British anarcha-punks Poison Girls, Grecian singer Rita Abatzi, and the early hardcore band Sin 34.
Soda Pop*Rip Off
If your New Year's resolution is to be fearless, consider soundtracking the coming months with Soda Pop*Rip Off. Out in 1994 on Dischord, the album is an enduring model of punk rock poise, and last fall it got a much-needed vinyl repress. The cool, tough D.C. trio—Christina Billotte (guitar/vocals), Myra Power (bass), and Marge Marshall (drums)—came up in the wake of Dischord's first decade, but as much as they flexed their heads over Faith/Void and Rites of Spring with energy to prove it, they also had real hooks.
Billotte formerly played alongside guitar hero Mary Timony in Autoclave—a short-lived but influential band—and Timony has said her bandmate gave her Wire's Pink Flag as well as a Blondie record when they started playing together as teenagers. Bilotte embraced the same brevity in her terse guitar lines as she did with her lyrics, but sang with a palpable desire to communicate something urgent and true. "Come on, say something!" she shouts at the outset, and does, teasing the political out of the personal with an understated power. "When you talk about purity/ That kind of purity does not exist in me," she sings on "Blood Song", and later on "Time Expired": "I don't wanna listen to your violence/ I just want to sit in silence/ What you think is cool is fucked up."
Soda Pop came out the same year as crucial riot grrrl missives like Bikini Kill's raw Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and Bratmobile's The Real Janelle EP, and though Slant 6 hailed from the same young DC scene that fostered members of both bands, the trio's politics were oblique and implicit—aligning them more with labelmates like Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi. They complemented their sharp surf riffs with then-familiar experiments of early 90s punk, warped by a collective obsession with mods and vintage jazz aesthetics: a horn-led instrumental, speak-singing about unfound angels, poetic kill-yr-idols titles like "Poison Arrows Shot at Heroes".
Slant 6: "Time Expired" (via SoundCloud)
Those unfamiliar with Slant 6 might at least recognize the first Soda Pop single, "What Kind of Monster Are You?", an all-time great punk statement. When Timony emerged in 2013 with her new trio, Ex Hex, one of their first recordings was a cover of the song. "Why are you creeping up behind me?/ Where did you get those claws?" Billotte sings, punching the last three words. "Why should I be scared of you?" No reason, it seems.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux
"Fire" b/w "Morning High" 7"
[Light in the Attic]
Lizzy Mercier Descloux was an unheralded pioneer of 1970s and '80s art-rock in her too-short lifetime. While her albums were reissued in 2006 by ZE, the quintessential downtown label she helped anchor, Light in the Attic will press them again this year in the wake of late-blooming interest in her work.
Descloux was a poet, painter, and actor who helped found the French magazine Rock News. Born in Paris, she moved to New York in the late 70s and became immersed in the downtown art/punk scene. An apparent dreamer, she released strange, incredibly alive-sounding albums on ZE alongside no wave's leading lights like Lydia Lunch, Kid Congo and the Contortions. Her book of art and poems, Desiderata, included work by her friend Patti Smith and boyfriend Richard Hell, and she appeared in Ivan Kral and Amos Poe's legendary film Blank Generation.
Descloux's music was deeply rhythmic, influenced by funk, soul, jazz, and the sounds she discovered traveling in Africa, South America, and the West Indies. Though she had a hit in France with "Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles"—off 1984's Zulu Rock, which ZE's Michael Esteban once described as "South African music [recalling] the Velvet Underground"—she remains criminally obscure. Light in the Attic pressed this 7" last year, collecting her 1979 dance single "Fire" (an Arthur Brown cover that appeared on her debut Press Color) as well as a wonderfully entrancing B-side: It's Lizzy Mercier Descloux and Patti Smith, giving an impassioned, ritualistic recitation of the Arthur Rimbaud poem "Matinée d’ivresse/Morning High". Over Descloux's hypnotic French whispers and crying distortion, Smith chants, "Pure love/ Pure love/ Pure love."
Hex + Chappaquiddick Bridge
Poison Girls are considered pioneers of the late 1970s anarcho-punk scene in England alongside fellow DIY icons Crass, seeking nothing less than to radicalize us with their music. Functioning outside the sphere of Punk™ and its mohawked media circus, Poison Girls and Crass resisted that era's mainstream commodification of anarchy and rebellion. They released albums on Crass Records, shared over 100 bills, and collaborated musically—Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud produced 1979's Hex and 1980's Chappaquiddick Bridge, both of which were reissued last year by Portland label Water Wing. As sneered with piercing sarcasm on Bridge's uncredited opening track: "State control and rock and roll/ Are run by clever men!/ Politics are ultra chic/ And wars are in again!"
At the throbbing heart of Poison Girls' crude rock experiments was singer-guitarist Vi Subversa, who brought a fiercely original perspective as a 44-year-old mother of two. (She turns 80 this year.) Subversa's lyrics were radical feminist poetry in the most literal sense and her raw voice was pure fire, magic, passion and soul, unleashing a tender, sing-song expression of alienation at one turn and a post-apocalyptic witch spell the next. Sans mere sloganeering, her intellect burned stereotypes to the ground with explicit goals: changing how we think about capitalism and anarchy, feminism and racism, gender and sexuality, war and peace, age and motherhood. "I was energized by the punk stuff and the opportunities it gave us to talk about things that were important to me as a mother," Subversa said in a recent interview with Maximum Rocknroll. "The press was like, 'Punk mom in the suburbs, blah blah,' and I hated that. I wanted to be there as a person in my own right joining in the fun and making music and exchanging ideas and being where the action was."
Their music itself pushed boundaries—with songs often breaking the four-minute mark, it wasn't "punk" in sound as much as politicized art-rock, incorporating piano, violin and odd, cassette-spun effects. Owing to their sense of exploration, Poison Girls even recorded an "orchestral" version of their all-caps manifesto track, "Statement", a version of which is included on 7" vinyl with Chappaquiddick Bridge. Subversa roars, "I DENOUNCE THE SYSTEM THAT DENIES MY EXISTENCE/ I CURSE THE SYSTEM THAT MAKES MACHINES OF MY CHILDREN." Language didn't fuel their power as much as create it on a level that many of the era's more acclaimed bands couldn't have. Their music is far less accessible, but Poison Girls should be remembered as British predecessors of riot grrrl along with the Raincoats, the Slits, and X-Ray Spex.
One man's trash is another man's potential niche interest in century-old 78rpm Greek records—that's how the saying goes, right? A decade back, Ian Nagoski, a Baltimore record store owner and producer of 78rpm reissues, happened upon a situation like this. A box of old Greek albums turned up at his shop, and he bought the whole lot for five dollars, sparking an ongoing interest. Though this collection of Rebetiko songs by 1930s Greek star Rita Abatzi was not among that original batch of records, the seeds had been planted. Nagoksi has already been likened to a modern Harry Smith on these pages.
To be honest, I didn't know any of this when I first heard Rita Abatzi's mesmerizing voice crackling from a stereo this fall, nor did I know about Abatzi's life of struggle: uprooted by war from her native home in the Turkish Republic; displaced, as a teenager, to the slums of Athens; and discovered in her early 20s singing urban folk songs at a wedding. You can hear the pained longing in her Eastern-tinged voice when she sings things like, "I can't cry anymore/ My heart has withered/ And unjustly I lose my tears." On the last track, which translates to "Mother, Please Don't Send Me to America", she pleads for simplicity. According to this LP's liner notes, Abatzi made hundreds of recordings during her career, which was halted by World War II; she spent the rest of her life as a mother and housewife, "half-forgotten" when she died in 1969. The virtue of a reissue like this is that we can remember, honoring the work of a woman who wrongly did not have the simple privilege to keep singing.
Do You Feel Safe?
"The record you are now holding in your hand (and hopefully listening to at this very moment) is irrefutable proof that teenage girls actively participated in the creation of American hardcore," writes Tobi Vail, of Bikini Kill, in the Do You Feel Safe? reissue liner notes, powerwashing the dust off this sole gem of a 1983 LP by the California hardcore punk quartet Sin 34. File this not just alongside bands like Tozibabe (from Yugoslavia) and the Comes (from Japan) as totally crucial female-fronted hardcore bands of the era, but also as a definitive piece in the narrative of SoCal hardcore, period.
Sin 34: "War at Home" (via SoundCloud)
Sin 34 was formed by two teenagers: whiplash-speed-screamer Julie Lanfeld and drummer David Markey, who made the We Got Power fanzine and would later direct the legendary Sonic Youth/Nirvana tour doc, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The band came together on the basis of mutual admiration of Black Flag and Devo, and Lanfeld allegedly stole a drumkit from her neighbor's garage so they could start rocking. (Markey used a metal lampshade as a cymbal.) Crude, savage, and brutal as hell, these songs do not at all forego a sense of humor—see "War at Home", which tells the tale of a quaint suburban family corrupted by punk rock, or the dumb, shit-talking mania of "New Wave Slut".
But Do You Feel Safe? is mostly a real document of four kids pissed by Reagan-era conservatism and the straight world at large, and doing what they could with that frustration on their own. Markey also contributes liner notes: "With the current reality of the NSA monitoring our every move, we now get to pose the question once more, Do You Feel Safe?" he writes. "Well, do you?"