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V/A - Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them

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Artist: V/A

Album: Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them

Label: Three Lobed

Review date: Aug. 11, 2011

Three Lobed Records started small. In 2000, Bardo Pond fan Cory Rayborn noted that his heroes didn’t have a 10” record in their discography yet, and started up a label to fill that gap. Philadelphia’s heaviest have been a part of the plan ever since, but the label roster and the ambition of Rayborn’s projects have moved beyond single-minded fandom. The well-rendered art and immaculate pressing and mastering of Three Lobed’s vinyl releases have become object lessons in just how beautiful a thing a properly made piece of vinyl can be; when it comes to production values, only Eremite, Immune, and PAN consistently match its standards. Amongst the North Carolina-based imprint’s albums and subscription-only CD series are some of the past decade’s best guitar instrumentals (Jack Rose’s I Do Play Rock And Roll and the Steve Gunn/John Truscinski Duo’s Sand City), creepiest conspiracy theory expositions (Sun City Girls’ Live Room), and foggiest jams (anything involving Bardo Pond), as well as some fine country-tinged efforts spun from the axis of D. Charles Speer and the Helix.

Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them celebrates Three Lobed’s tenth anniversary one year late with a box full of split LPs (Kickstarter contributors and pre-release subscribers got a single and a CD that won’t be reviewed here since they’re already gone) featuring longtime label affiliates. The box’s cover image, Casey Burns’ painting of a rotary dial phone, is echoed within by sleeves adorned with images of other obsolete devices; I can’t think of a package that better sums up the queasy feeling that the new century is headed in a very wrong direction that has also motivated the cassette revival as well and the vinyl resurgence that Three Lobed has served so well. But how much have you played your birthday compilations by Matador or Merge lately? It’s far too easy for these projects to be mere vanities, populated with second-drawer stuff that gets picked up on the way out of the anniversary concert, played once, and then filed away. The decision to go vinyl-only suggests that Spaces is intended to mean more than that, and several of its sides deliver on the promise.

But not all of them. Eternal Tapestry gets a whole side, which might have been more than they should have taken. “Doing Your Own Being” fades in on a jam already in progress, and it takes rather longer than it should to get to the good part. First you have to sit through a three-minute build-up to some lackluster sax licks, then ponder their repetition long enough to get around to wondering if the track’s in-the-red recording is a virtue or simply the reason that this one didn’t make it onto one of the band’s own records. It would have made more sense to fade in about 14 minutes later, when they suddenly hit their stride and build to a Bic-flicking, amp-smoking blowout. And the Brooklyn-based duo Mouthus’s side never quite overcomes my long-standing skepticism towards their output, although I have to say that for them, it’s pretty good. Layers of machine-like loops, heard through the wall beats, and guitars and singing that both sound like robot moans pile up to make a good soundtrack for 3 AM one-foot-on-the-floor couch flights; it’s just that the Dead C did it better on “Bury” a couple decades ago.

The side shared by Wooden Wand and D. Charles Speer & The Helix transcends its apparent leftover scraps provenance. The latter combo’s two tunes were recorded with a rhythm section that includes No Neck Blues Band’s Dave Nuss. One suspects that that line-up’s short life span and the fact that the one that followed it is so bad-ass may have conspired to keep these tunes in the can. They feel like they would have been a single back in the days when it wasn’t such a costly effort to just press up a couple tracks and set them free. The combo’s cover of Jerry Foster and Bill Rice’s “Big City” is rollicking but slight, definitely B-side material. Their rendition of Gene Clark’s yearning “Shooting Star” is more reverent and memorable, and that’s how it should be; if you can’t do a song like this with love, you shouldn’t do it at all. The other three cuts on this side are Dylan-loving solo turns that Wooden Wand (aka James Toth) made at home over the past couple of years. On a bad day, Mr. Toth’s evident self-regard for his lyrical conceits can be pretty aggravating, but the way he sings on a couple of these about getting it together and coming up with reasons to go on makes me want to buy him a beer, not take mine into another room.

The Sun City Girls’ contribution is the oldest music in the box. It was recorded in concert on November 12, 2004, which is the shared birthday of drummer Charles Gocher and Charles Manson; it’s also the Girls’ last American concert, since Gocher passed on in 2007. Consistency is just one of the many hobgoblins that the SCGs held in contempt, so there’s no such thing as a typical effort. This one kicks off with a surfy theme to an old TV show, “The Wide World Of Animals,” which turns in a second from joky to jaw-dropping when guitarist Richard Bishop gets the notion to show what his fingers can really do. A stretched-out “Theme From Sangkala,” previously heard on 300,003 Crossdressers From Across The Rig Veda, brings a crowd-pleasing Eastern vibe, which they then gleefully smother with a free-improv disassembly of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” You wonder why they’d do that to such a great old tune, but if you have to ask, you don’t know the Sun City Girls; they never met a sacred cow that they didn’t want to gore.

Comets On Fire also come back from the grave. They haven’t put a record out in five years or toured in three, and there’s no reason to think they’re coming back, but if they don’t this is a hell of a swan song. It’s a side long collage of rehearsal tapes, but the compositional contrasts of, say, The Faust Tapes is not what they have in mind here. Instead they lay jams on top of each other, giving priority to the wooly freak-outs that enjoyed less and less prominence as they matured. This is the sort of thing that gives testosterone and self-inflicted ear injury a good name, and although it’s gloriously messy, it’s not a mere mess; the music’s procession from wang-balang riffing to entropic meltdowns is unerringly paced.

The last three sides all go to longtime friends of Three Lobed. While Sonic Youth haven’t recorded for the label before, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, and Kim Gordon have all turned up in one guise or another. Their two tracks come from 2000 and 2010, the label’s lifespan, and each sounds like it could have been released on their own SYR imprint. “In & Out,” the more recent effort, pairs restrained harmonic sparkle from the guitars and a gone-sounding Gordon vocal with a kinetic groove, while “Out & In” pushes at the bounds of a sluggish riff before breaking out into a noisy sprint that is pretty thrilling despite the familiarity of the licks they play. It’d be easy to dismiss this as one for the fans, but it’s more fun than a lot of the polished pop stuff they’ve done over the last decade. And isn’t a compilation like this the sort of project where the “for the fans” stuff should go? Bardo Pond seem to have thought so, since their contribution is pretty close to the spontaneously formed stuff that they’ve always saved for self-released and Three Lobe-sponsored efforts. They weigh in with a 20-minute maelstrom that does its best to resist falling into their patented stagger beat. First the guitars and drums thrash back and forth like they were trapped in a kidnapper’s burlap bag, and even after they break free and settle down Isobel Sollenberger’s wordless, maxi-echoed moans make you wonder just what fell critter was in the sack with them.

It falls to singer-guitarist Steve Gunn to go beyond giving the people what they want. He swapped “The Lurker Extended” for a previous submission one week before the whole set was mastered, and it comes charged with urgency and confidence. The way it goes back and forth between elements of bluesy song and intricately picked fantasias is a bit like some old Roy Harper epic; the way it takes everything that was good about Gunn’s last solo album, Boerum Palace, and does it better imparts the thrill that comes from being there right at the moment that someone takes their game up a notch. If the rest of Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them shows you where Three Lobed and its associates have been, this performance tells you that they’re still going places.

By Bill Meyer

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