Friday, April 14, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol 22: What's Up Matador, aka, The Best Compilation in Human History

Look, I am not exaggerating.
I’m not generally a nostalgic, but there’s exactly one compilation CD on the planet that ties together enough of my adult life to makeme wistful: the 1997 What’s Up Matador compilation. More than just a sweet little piece of marketing from Matador Records, it's a collection of a lot of the best music to come out of the 1990s. Listen to it and I’m back in a jumbled, under-decorated house in downtown Reno, Nevada, waiting to stumble toward the casinos to play Pai Gow till something like dawn; next, I’m in Jamaica Plain, in the middle floor of one of Boston’s famous triple-deckers, sipping a third night-cap with a bunch of guys in the days before we all paired off into full, final adulthood (think How I Met Your Mother, only without the shitty ending).

The whole thing winds up with the guy who owned that place in Reno giving me this glorious compilation four, five years ago. Maybe he noticed it meant more to me somehow – it makes for one of the few links to the friends I have on the West Coast, than the friends from the East Coast who I haven’t seen in years - or maybe he was just sick of it (because I doubt he’s aware of the East Coast/West Coast bridge). Either way, he was kind enough to let me have it and here I am nearly 20 years later and I can still drop Disc 1 into audio player and rarely skip a song.

Disc 2, on the other hand, rarely leaves its case and the folder where it lives on my desktop never gets opened. Songs from Disc 1 show up on the mixed tapes I used to make (actually, mixed CDs) with the regularity of a heartbeat, but only one song from Disc 2 ever made it onto one of those compilations: Railroad Jerk’s “One Step Forward.” I love that freakin’ song (but, no, Youtube freebies, sadly), enough to play it between 1 1/3 and 1 1/2 times every time I hear it, even now (I tell myself it's about a lyric toward the middle I really like, and not infatuation). Disc 1, though, I love. It’s a little clingy, honestly.

With many of the same artists showing up on both discs, and with the same people (presumably) arranging the music (more on that later), I don’t get how that’s possible. How can one disc feel that much better with that many commonalities? In between turning all these pieces over in my head, I tried to figure that out this past week. And I think I got there. I’ll get to why What’s Up Matador is the greatest compilation in human history in the second half, even with only half of it pulling the weight. For now, let’s dig into Disc 2.

As much as Disc 2 has been an option since Day 1, it’s rarely better than the third option, or even the fourth one (see what I did there?). That’s why, this week, I forced myself to listen to Disc 2 first and foremost. At time of posting, I made it through three times (and, through “One Step Forward,” five times; six, if one counts partial listens; NOTE: I’m confident that I’m overselling that song). It wasn’t quite a chore – and I’d encourage anyone who can find either the CD or the songs on it (because I couldn’t find it on Spotify) to give it an open-minded listen - but, no, no epiphanies either.

It’s not that all the songs suck. Cat Power contributes the softly haunting “Back of Your Head,” The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion pounds through “Dig My Shit,” and I just like Barbara Manning’s “The Blood Feeling”…though that could be because she sounds kinda like Liz Phair on that one. Of which, Phair’s “Stuck On An Island” might tell a good tale, but it wants a little on the delivery.

That might, in fact, be the telling difference between the discs: when an artist shows up on both discs, Disc 1 almost always gets the better song, whether it’s Liz Phair’s beautiful vignette, “Stratford-on-Guy,” the looping throb of Helium’s “Pat’s Trick,” the serene defiance of Bettie Serveert’s “Tomboy,” or the distorted violent wail that slices through “Dang” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (makes me want to run through walls, that sound). Again, “Stuck on an Island,” “Lucy,” “Life Is an Imbecile” (dang...no video/audio) and “Dig My Shit, respectively, aren’t bad so much as they’re not as good (it’s close on “Dig My Shit”). At least not to me…still, I’d put…pretty small quantities of money down that a majority would agree with my choices.

The other handicap comes with Matadors choice to stuff Disc 2 with mid- to slow tempo songs, most of them with an emotional pitch that, lyrics notwithstanding (again, noted without close, extended listening) sounds like defeat. A song called “Alfredo’s Welcome,” by The For Carnation, drops like lead into the middle of everything, and the whole thing slows to the steady determined pace people rightly associate with getting whatever is going on over with. “Happy Birthday” by the Pizzicato Five ends things brightly, but not soon enough. Again, just because I struggle…honestly, I don’t listen to Disc 2 because, outside a project like this, it’s not worth my time, that doesn’t mean you should blow it off? I mean, what if Helium rates “Lucy” as their best song? What if you do?

Now, let’s turn to this whole, “greatest compilation in human history” thing…

The maximally trebled and distorted guitar that opens Pavement’s “Texas Never Whispers” will always be my audio mnemonic for What’s Up Matador as a collection: it’s the “sound” of the album in, maybe, four bars? Nah, make that at least eight; the rising, lower-register churn that follows figures in this little shorthand. I’ll also always treasure Yo La Tengo’s “Tom Courtenay,” not just because I like it, but because I still don’t get the references for shit.

I can’t name many “perfect” albums, the ones you love from start to finish. The only two that come to me off the top of my head would be David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command. What’s Up Matador, Disc 1 falls just a little short of that highest bar – it stumbles early between “Catholic Education” by Teenage Fan Club and “Vandal-X” by Unsane (the latter = better) and, frankly, I never listen to the last two songs willingly – but, for me, that’s one of the best, longest middle passages you’re ever going to hear - 19-20 songs that just rock(!), and over a helpfully wide musical palette…unless, of course, you hate all of the music.

Apart from highlighting a couple songs that I feel worth the attention, that’s the last thing I want to note and thank technology for bringing to life. At least half the genius of Disc 1 arises from not just the songs, but from the order in which they play. Even as the variety of sounds and artists keeps things novel, the progression of songs takes you up and it takes you down, but mostly in mood – say, the half-associated dead-pan of “Stratford-on-Guy” to the Pizzicato Five’s bossanova-bopping “Twiggy” (again, between Disc 1 and Disc 2, that’s the better song). Even more to the point, technology has blessed us with the power to arrange our own compilations, and that’s all kinds of awesome! And, seriously, god bless technology, because I used to have to walk to a record store and hope they’d even fucking heard of Silkworm (for example), while, now, I just have to successfully type a string of letters into my phone and – BOOM! – entire collection! And at a low, low price that probably makes musical artists slave to the road. Still, it’s worth giving a bow to the good folks at Matador for stringing things together just so and making a thoroughly enthralling compilation.

I want to close out this post by flagging a couple songs that, by naming them here, might help them have longer lives than they would otherwise – and I’m doing that because I think they’re each original, smart, and unique both to, and within, their time and place. First, there is one song in this compilation that I have almost broken for myself: Railroad Jerk’s “Bang the Drum.” I stuffed it on a half dozen compilations, easily, and to the point where my wife and kids pointed it out. It hooked me pretty easily because I’m a percussion nut, but the entire approach on that isn’t something you hear everyday; a bit like DEVO, now that I think of it.

Attempts to nail down a favorite song between both discs came up empty, so I’ll nominate three and encourage anyone who finds this to listen to them, however he/she can. Those are:

Cat Power, “Nude as the News
Chain Gang, “Son of Sam
Silkworm, “Couldn’t You Wait” (think this is one version of at least two; BEST VERSION)

If I wanted to explain the best songs from the 1990s to some random person, all three of those songs would be in the mix…unless it’s a Top 3, in which case, gimme some time (that’s a lot of responsibility). Even then, I know those three songs would speak for a tiny corner of even American popular music – or, in this case, vaguely popular music. Taken broadly, I’d argue that, as a whole, we’re living something close to a Renaissance in American musical culture. I’m guessing that, if listened exclusively to music from just the past decade, I couldn’t get through everything released in that time before I die. I mean, each and every one of us can access the musical equivalent of infinity through his/her phone.

Still, if you’re looking 1990s, independent rock, stuff that fits a variety of moods, feelings, and thought processes, you cannot beat this compilation. For it is the greatest compilation in human history, amen.

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