Aberdeen finds lost recordings, Black Record goes proto-punk
It Was The Rain: Lost Recordings 1993-1995
“John and I had some demos that were absolutely vile,” said singer Beth Arzy, quoted in the book “Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records.” John is John Girgus of the California group Aberdeen, and he had some choice words for Aberdeen’s first single, “Byron,” on the legendary British indie-pop label Sarah Records: “Garbage. It’s total shit.”
This writer is not alone in thinking that they are way too hard on themselves. The aforementioned demos comprise the release at hand: the 18-track compilation It Was The Rain, released digitally and on cassette.
Historically, these recordings are important for the band, since they mapped the way for the group’s first three 7-inch singles, of which all songs are represented here. It’s solidly charming fare for indie-pop fans, but nothing earth-shattering. After a turbulent breakup—musically and romantically—and a four-year hiatus, Girgus broke the ice by asking Arzy for these demo tapes back, which also seeded the band’s sole proper full-length album, Homesick and Happy to Be Here from 2002.
For the Sarah Records tracks, these rougher, hazier demos show that the group had a fairly clear vision all along, even with certain timbres (like the Cocteau Twins-esque guitar on “Fireworks”) carrying over to the studio versions. Fans of the 4-track homemade demo aesthetic will be interested in the demos for tracks which would appear on the professional and sophisticated-sounding Homesick and Happy to Be Here with more fleshed-out arrangements and real drums instead of a drum machine.
Aberdeen devotees will need this for several songs that weren’t released previously, including the shimmering bliss-pop of “Bilinda” and “Snowball Dream”; “Self Evidence,” written by and recorded with Adam Hervey of Timonium; and two fairly faithful covers of the Pastels’ quasi-psychedelic (think David Roback) “Baby Honey” that become a little tedious.
At the risk of sounding obvious, fans of U.K. indie-pop groups like The Field Mice would likely enjoy their American cousins in Aberdeen, and it’s worth noting that Arzy eventually moved overseas and contributed her consistently pretty and clear vocals to Trembling Blue Stars, one of Robert Wratten’s post-Field Mice groups.
For a bunch of “vile” “garbage,” Aberdeen’s early material has actually held up fairly well over 20 years, hitting that wistful pleasure spot more often than not.
Rocket from the Tombs
No discussion of notable proto-punk outfits is complete without bringing up Rocket from the Tombs, the blistering and unhinged mid-’70s Cleveland concern; it spawned the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu and cultivated iconic material that both of those bands would incorporate into their canons, such as “Sonic Reducer” for the Dead Boys and “Final Solution” and “30 Seconds over Tokyo” for Pere Ubu.
The live album The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs, recorded in 1975, should be essential listening for anyone who claims to like punk rock; this is scalding, acid-fight, finger-in-the-wall-socket, white-hot fury and madness that at times sounds like it’s on the brink of self-destruction.
All of the ingredients are fused together in a glorious mess, with mind-melting guitar lines from Gene O’Connor (a.k.a. Cheetah Chrome) and the inimitable singer David Thomas (a.k.a. Crocus Behemoth) being terrifying. Just compare Pere Ubu’s version of “Life Stinks” from the classic debut The Modern Dance—a worthy and turbulent rendition, mind you—with the tumultuous Rocket from the Tombs version, which blows Pere Ubu’s version out of the water.
After reforming in 2003 with non-original guitarist Richard Lloyd, the group recorded its first studio album, Rocket Redux, released in 2004, followed by 2011’s Barfly, and now the release at hand is Black Record, made without O’Connor and Lloyd. By conventional measures, this is a perfectly fine garage-rock record and a wisely concise 30-minute blast that is perhaps restrained slightly by the studio environment.
“Welcome to the New Dark Ages” pummels and forges a bluesy riff into punk, Damned-style, and Thomas is clearly having a blast on the album, alternating between his forceful, rabid vocal style and his unselfconscious, high-note, sing-songy notes. Yet another version of “Sonic Reducer” is here; it’s by no means bad, but it seems a little superfluous considering all of the versions already out there.
The album is a little more satisfying on its second half, with the half-loony “Coopy (Schrödinger’s Refrigerator)” and the ramping fury of “Read It and Weep.” The band can clearly hold its own as a contemporary garage-rock group, though Black Record isn’t quite on the level of the riot-on-stage, jaw-dropping intensity of the band’s 1975 incarnation—but not much is.