Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bedhead, Transaction de Novo, 1998

Transaction de Novo

This is the newest record I have tried writing extensively about. Usually preferring the crucible of time to vet the bands I discuss, I will however, throw caution to the wind and simply infer that Bedhead will survive the vicissitudes, trends, and changing attitudes of history, and be considered something of a great, if somewhat obscure band.

Before I start in earnest there are two terms, which I find distasteful on almost aesthetic grounds, that I refuse to use in describing Bedhead: “post-rock” and “slowcore,” which are both ill-considered subgenres that do nothing more than muddle things. Bedhead were simply minimalists, not unlike Steve Reich in his early days, playing simple and controlled melodies off each other in staid syncopation, only doing so in an instrumentally rock format; like the Velvets circa their third record, Bedhead could sound as fragile and brittle as a folk band, or as compressed and streamlined as a bullet fired from a gun.

Bedhead was the brainchild of two North-Texas brothers named Kadane, one called Matt and the other Bubba. According to the Touch & Go website, the young brothers experimented with stringed instruments, and by that I think they meant violins, violas, and/or cellos, but I suppose they could have meant guitars, bass-guitars, and pianos. The brothers took on extra members and evolved into a band that featured the novelty of three electric guitar players—a novelty that I wish were repeated more, given the textural possibilities.

I was introduced to this band by a lanky red headed young man named Adam who, like me, attended Sonoma State University in the mid Nineties. He liked a host of bands that I had never heard of then—Pram, Eggs, Labradford, Slowdive; I even spied an Old Dirty Bastard disc in his collection.

All the trademarks that made Transaction de Novo a classic were apparent early on in the gestation of Bedhead: repeated melodies, simple, evenhanded drumming, laconic, almost mumbled vocals that bore just the slightest hint of melody, and the slow, meticulous build of simple guitar chords, angular lines, and other more percussive dalliances that made each song sound how an inverted triangle looked, only subtler. The production though was not where it would be in 1998 though.

Bedhead’s first record—1994’s WhatFunLifeWas on Trance Syndicate sounded not unlike their first EP, which was released the same year and was recorded with one microphone in one take in a Dallas church. This single microphone technique provides spacious surface area, but no depth; and despite the fact that WhatFunLifeWas was recorded to a 16-track tape machine, it sounds very similar to the two-track mixer approach used on the 4-Song EP, which is to say a bit flat and undynamic. And though I would be the first to admit to having an affinity for under produced music, material as textural and subtle as that produced by Bedhead demands a certain amount of dynamism not easily captured in their earliest efforts.

After having proved themselves Joy Division acolytes by recording the frenetic “Disorder” in half time for their 4-Song EP, they paid a similar if not as explicit debt to the Velvet Underground with “To the Ground,” a song on WhatFunLifeWas which bears more than a passing sonic, if not lyrical—the esoteric lyrics are, on the surface, about the unseemly death of a cockroach but I am sure there is a deeper meaning that I failed to grasp—resemblance to “That’s the Story of My Life.”

Most of WhatFunLifeWas though is made up of hushed, twisting and interlocking electric guitars, and like the song “Foaming Love” is more reminiscent of folk than even Dylan after he plugged in, replete with the simple two-beat bleating of a tambourine. Much of it though tritely builds toward forced crescendos, a habit they would grow out of as their latter day songs climaxed naturally, or not at all, which bore a hallmark of maturity.

Their next album, Beheaded, was produced by the group and takes a step toward the cavernous, ultra-disciplined guitar minimalism of Transaction de Novo, while adhering to their rigorously slow pace that made everything sound as somber as a black hat. Songs such as “Withdraw” “Smoke,” and “Roman Candle” utilized the theretofore only experimented with slide guitar that bears the guitarists’ Texas roots and points to a kind of kindred association with artists such as Will Oldham and Simon Joyner, which is rarely mentioned because Bedhead avoided the bonds of neo-country pretensions; still though, it is not a far leap.

Bedhead generally gets lumped in with Mogwai, who are neither disciplined or austere, and nearly never as stately; and Low which is probably a comparison that they will find themselves running from forever because the similarities are sometimes striking—sparseness, reverential sense of quiet, and a measured, deliberate vocal style. Though I have not seen it mentioned much, they sound a great deal like Galaxie 500, and nothing like, which I have seen, Spaceman 3.

Working within a kind of bi-year framework that saw a record released in 1994 and 1996, Bedhead released their masterpiece Transaction de Novo in 1998. Where their earlier efforts merged into a kind of subtle and unhurried malaise of unemotional vocals that bordered on the histrionic, and anachronistically quiet electric guitars that forever built toward some finite outcome of meaningfulness, their final album took disciplined control of the quiet space with an almost Catholic sense of organized asceticism.

Transaction de Novo opens with the skeletally bass-heavy “Exhume,” which personally is a title I would steer clear of if I was not trying on lyrics for a death-metal band—especially if like Bedhead, I was using a glockenspiel. The song is so low it vibrates and croaks with the heaviness of Matt Kadane’s frog voice, weighted down with something like remorse as he utters his one stanza—“Half sunk in the mud with one eye showing, a cracked smile and hair still growing. Your hands miles apart as if they'd never met, you were the happiest I'd seen you yet.” Not really the stuff of legend, but lyrics rarely point toward musical acumen.

Lyrics had always acted as a lesser component of Bedhead’s studio-built monuments, almost as if they were used as a block against being an instrumental band. Their first single, “Bedside Table,” which appears on their first record sounds as if, with a little more guitar playfulness, it could be a surf song by the Mermen or another such band imbued with the same kind of arch languidness before erupting into controlled sonic chaos. Lyrically though it’s a bit meta, and like “Exhume,” impossibly brief: “what I was just reading about someone deciding to quit speaking began to dissolve into my lap as the words gave up their attempts at meaning.” Personally, I don’t like lyrics to be confusing or in need of some sort of Rosetta stone to decipher the meaning, but I understand that I am particularly literal about such things.

Transaction de Novo showed a band at the height of its powers, lyrically it was actually sad instead of just taking on the hallmarks of sadness—namely a lyrical slow-voiced crawl. The second song, “More Than Ever,” is also built upon the thick bones of the bass guitar (possibly two), but utilizes their signature curling web like guitars, and a lonely bass/snare march to create a backdrop of somber regret for Matt Kadane’s plaintive moral searching: “But I won't change it and neither will you, when what seemed the appropriate are now the wrong things to do. If in every act there's something good, I haven't done all the good things I could.”

Two other songs stand out—one the magnificent “Forgetting” which is as conventional as Bedhead had ever sounded, with a heavy dose of slide guitar, and even a guitar solo; and “Extramundane” which sounds almost like pop, and must have had their fans tapping their converse sneakers and bobbing their heads at one of their few shows. The one misstep is the unfortunately titled “Psychosomatica,” which sounds to me a bit like Unwound in the worse way.

Transaction de Novo was one of the last great records of the nineties from one of the last bands to actually try representing the time in which they worked without trying to sound like something that could have been recorded twenty to thirty years before. Bedhead turned their noses up at rock’s cocky swaggering and muscular virtuosity and used an architectural sense of space and melody to create something boldly majestic. Transaction de Novo was special because it showed a band that had a real ethos—a religiously minimalist zeal for simple contrasting melodies coupled with a sense of open, almost lonely space that at times they refused to fill, displaying a keen discipline rarely seen in such a decadent business as creating rock and roll music.



Post a Comment

<< Home

Music Blogs - Blog Top Sites Directory of Music Blogs
Music Blogs
Music Blogs