Lifers, the first compilation on the cassette label life like, founded by Fred Thomas (best known as the front man of Saturday Looks Good to Me), comes 51 releases into the label’s catalog, and it’s a doozy, clocking in at 96 minutes with 29 different artists. More than a year in the making, the tape is the result of Thomas’s call out for “the scuzziest no-fi sub-music recordings” among his musical friends across the U.S.A., including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, The Hive Dwellers (featuring Calvin Johnson), and many more lesser-known acts with a concentration on Michigan troublemakers and Life Like recording artists. Despite the wording of Thomas’s request, only a few contributions are truly “scuzzy” or “no-fi,” but most have a homemade feel with at least a glimmer of pop/rock experimentation.
Side one, for the most part, is conventionally song-oriented, with the gentle electronic ambiance and hip-hop beats of Curtains and the bouncy, organ-driven femme-pop “She Is Gone” from Bad Indians. Several of Thomas’s outfits are represented, including his solo/duo project City Center, the summer-evoking Swimsuit with the live instrumental “Ghosts,” and Mighty Clouds, presenting a simple charm with Betty Barnes’s multi-layered vocals over acoustic guitar strums.
While side one is a mixed bag, things really start to gel on the somewhat more satisfying and stranger side two. It features a more unified aesthetic, going from Panda Bear-esque loops and even to noise, like the buzzing “Night Balance” from Lidless Eye. The side begins with the New York City duo Corpsekisser, with a glockenspiel, train-sound loop, and a singsongy creepiness, followed by the distorted synth percolations of Racecardriver. The compilation closes with an untitled track by Evenings, with a disquieting sonic storm, unceasing waves and a roaring guitar in the distance, ending a diverse and generous helping of offerings from the American underground cassette-culture zeitgeist.
The deceptively named instrumental duo Blues Control, comprised of keyboardist Lea Cho and guitarist Russ Waterhouse, is not some generic dive-bar blues-rock outfit, and its groan-worthy pun of a name (rhymes with “cruise control”), originally meant as a joke, provides no real hints for its unclassifiable sound. A typical Blues Control track has a certain setup—a bass anchor played on the piano and electric fuzz guitar wanderings atop homemade rhythm loops—and the pace is usually measured and moderate, but the outcome can vary wildly.
The twosome’s new album, Valley Tangents, may sound to fans slightly more accessible and refined than previous outings. Cho is a classically trained pianist, demonstrating both rigor and an exploratory attitude in her improvisations, and some of her sound choices are head-scratchers, using somewhat cheesy presets or, most annoyingly, a plainly artificial digital piano instead of an acoustic piano. Waterhouse uses a guitar tone that wouldn’t be out of place in the psychedelic ’60s, with a warm rather than prickly kind of distortion.
“Love’s a Rondo” starts off the album with a slyly pleasing yet odd number, perhaps like Santana crossed with a lounge band, featuring Waterhouse and Cho playing amid vaguely Latin beats from avant-garde percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. “Iron Pigs” brings to mind Giorgio Moroder in the early ’80s and coke-stained mustaches, with its unabashed synth horn outbursts and a detuned drum loop. “Open Air” has a relaxed vibe, reminiscent of Neu!’s “Leb’ Wohl,” displaying Cho defying her classical background by adjusting frequently, using jazz or torch-song balladry flourishes. The album ends with the noodling “Gypsum,” with wind chimes and a kosmische mood, first using some blurry improv before going into unhinged, warped honky-tonk piano scrambles. It’s hard to pin down what they’re going for, but they are constantly self-regulating, flirting yet never getting too serious or silly and avoiding pretension.