6.495 out of 10 (Dischord)
As an exercise in discipline, and in keeping with the bands name, this review will be composed using only words found in James Joyces 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 Id walk past the building where Hula-Hoop rehearsed. Id look up to the top floor of that building, seeing nothing but a bare overhead light, listening to guitars bounce off the walls. Thats when Hula Hoop sounded great. I couldnt 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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: Its 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: Im uptight! Youre uptight! Hes 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, dont 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.
For real NOU fans, the sound is live, raw, and passionate. My research shows, however, that theyve made better recordings. The band has given new names to the instruments they play. Tim Greens 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 doesnt seem to be on this recording. James Cantys 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 cant make out the singing so well. On this record, though, hes 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, doesnt 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 hes more snotty than screechy, more buried than central. Hes 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. Its 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, Thats our Hitler! On The Embassy Tapes, Svenonious has some moments, but hes not Hitler yet.
Now for the great many who dont know either NOU or mU: Do you like rackety live music, even if its not really a concert but just a recording made all at the same time in a room? Have you ever listened to your friends bands rehearsal tapes and said, Yeah, thats rough, but I like the intensity? This could be for you. Or it could seem a big mess.
- Dan Kilian
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