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6.495 out of 10 (Dischord)

As an exercise in discipline, and in keeping with the band’s name, this review will be composed using only words found in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Some years back in Louisville there was a popular local band called Hula-Hoop, which played clever pop music and had a cool guitar sound. They were nothing revolutionary, but they were engaging. After working Monday nights I’d walk past the building where Hula-Hoop rehearsed. I’d look up to the top floor of that building, seeing nothing but a bare overhead light, listening to guitars bounce off the walls. That’s when Hula Hoop sounded great. I couldn’t really make out the songs, but I loved that sound.

I remember hearing a recording of Elvis Presley live, in the first year of his fame. The music was drowned out by the surging screams of teenage girls. The waves of song and screams, pulling away and then pushing back to the forefront, made the music something other than what it was. The recording didn’t capture Elvis, but it caught the feel of a phenomenon.

In Washington D.C. in 1992, The Nation of Ulysses made what may have been their last recording at their home, “The Embassy.” The guitars bounce off the walls. It doesn’t quite capture The Nation of Ulysses, but it creates a phenomenon. Someone found it, Dischord Records released it, and as the NOU literature would have it, I the reviewer am now trying to “disseminate information of our proceedings to the assembled in squaresville…” and I am “…bound to misrepresent and to pander to the misconceptions that the squares hold so dear.”

So listen up, squares: It’s a good racket, poorly recorded.

The good moments might make you feel that this is the only way to hear music, with all sorts of volume issues and indecipherable sounds. It can seem a very honest way to record. “Uptight” has one of the few audible vocals: “I’m uptight! You’re uptight! He’s uptight! Well alright!” It has great howling and scattering guitars and singer Ian Svenonious screams wonderfully. In “Hex-Proof,” a slow, ominous bass part lumbers its way through a groaning fog of feedback as a harpy squeals, flapping furiously above. On “Last Train To Cool,” the rhythm section drives a train through the station, and the guitars make the rails curl up behind it, twisting and creaking in the heat.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of volume issues and indecipherable sounds. If anything happens on “Outline for Hangout” and “Gimme Disaster,” the tapes, overwhelmed by the sound, don’t reveal it. “A.P.E. Embassy” (they like acronyms) is where the transcendent slop also reveals a sloppy band. Ian Svenonious plays a trumpet that sounds like a dying giraffe. Also, spelling as lyrics is usually dumb.

The last track, “P-Power,” was clearly recorded in a different time and mood. There’s a light pseudo-jazz vibe, some people talking, and a boy/girl couple singing an off-key chorus of the title. The record really acts as a whole, good or bad, depending on your tolerance for noisy Lo-Lo-Fi, up until “P-Power,” which stands alone as an individual track of definite crap.

There are three ways to want this album: First, as a NOU fan who wants more. Second, as a mAKE UP fan who wants to hear the earlier incarnation that led to NOU. Third, as some curious spendthrift who’s heard a few good things about NOU or mU, or who just likes the cool cover of the band standing sullenly in a mob of private elementary schoolgirls. I belong to the second and third groups.

For real NOU fans, the sound is live, raw, and passionate. My research shows, however, that they’ve made better recordings. The band has given new names to the instruments they play. Tim Green’s guitar, “The Squealer,” and “The Crackler” sound great, spiking strange angular shapes into the sonic soup (with some splashing) while the band as a whole sometimes suffers. Steven Kroner doesn’t seem to be on this recording. James Canty’s drums, or “The Exploder,” pound out on the surfy R.O.T.T.E.N., but sound flat or buried elsewhere. Steve Gamboa lays down mostly solid stuff with “The Grumbler and sometimes The Mumbler,” but on “A.P.E Embassy,” he switches to what I call “The Clanky Bass.”

The matter of Ian Svenonious is of crucial importance to the second group of potential buyers, mAKE UP fans. Like most noisy rock in the punk aftermath, you can’t make out the singing so well. On this record, though, he’s really buried. The vocals, repeated incantations and constant choruses, drift in and out like voices in a cacophonous dream. His style, so outrageous and earpopping with the mAKE UP, doesn’t get to run the show here. With the mAKE UP, he screeches, whispers and laughs desperately, calling for his dearest love while invoking the soul of the Universe, even when singing about rectangles and trapezoids. Here, he gets off some great screams, but he’s more snotty than screechy, more buried than central. He’s Elvis, but the guitars are screaming girls, drowning him out.

In the mAKE UP, Svenonious has an unaware ridiculousness needed by great rock singers (at least he never winks at the joke). That ridiculousness is embodied in Elvis and Jim Morrison, among others. My favorite example, however, is the strange beatnik/flower child/Elvis Impersonator hybrid who auditions for Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in “The Producers.” It’s a movie wherein two men are out to make a surefire Broadway flop about the sunnier side of the Third Reich. After this character croons about “the power of a flower,” Mostel shouts out, “That’s our Hitler!” On The Embassy Tapes, Svenonious has some moments, but he’s not Hitler yet.

Now for the great many who don’t know either NOU or mU: Do you like rackety live music, even if it’s not really a concert but just a recording made all at the same time in a room? Have you ever listened to your friend’s band’s rehearsal tapes and said, “Yeah, that’s rough, but I like the intensity”? This could be for you. Or it could seem a big mess.

- Dan Kilian
daniel.kil[email protected]


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[email protected] | January 2001 | Issue 10