Ten CDs From Under the Radar

The best of what you may not have heard in 2003

In the record business, sales are down, but in my business, reviewing records, the action never slackens. Here are ten more reasons, from under the radar and way out there, why this was a great year to be a music critic.

The Speaking Canaries, Get Out Alive: The Last Type Story (Scat)

When he is not drumming with instrumental terrorists Don Caballero, Damon Che is the monster guitarist and vocal prow of this power trio. He should let the Canaries out more often; Get Out Alive is the group's first album since 1995's searing Songs for the Terrestially Challenged. But for your patience, you get napalm riffing and glass-spear harmonics that tell you exactly what Husker Du would have sounded like with Eddie Van Halen and J Mascis on four-handed guitar. For true amp-death aesthetes, there is a second, limited CD-R edition of Get Out Alive with ferociously extended versions of these songs.

The Fall Words of Expectation: The BBC Sessions (Sanctuary)

In a quarter-century of non-stop insurrection, barking poet Mark E. Smith and his many, merry-go-round lineups of the Fall have recorded nearly two dozen sessions for John Peel's BBC Radio Show -- reportedly more than any other band. This two-CD set features the Fall's first five visits to the Beeb, between 1978 and 1981, in full: a valuable document of the group's early rattling sound and Smith's explosive lyric and vocal wrath. Two more sessions from the 1990s reveal a more musically polished band led by a lethal, unchanged Smith. The leap from his opening harangue in June, 1978, "Rebellious Jukebox," to the '96 cover of Captain Beefheart's "Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones" affirms Peel's famous loving description of the Fall: "always different, always the same."

Augie March Strange Bird (BMG Australia)

The first of two, new Australian wonders: Augie March are a quintet from Melbourne of jubilant, accessible invention, wrapping the enigmatic songcraft of singer-guitarist Glenn Richards in luxuriant melees of chiming guitars, mountain-stream voices and keyboard grandeur. There are fleeting airs of beguiling precedence -- Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks leading the Flaming Lips instead of Wayne Coyne; the Beatles' "White Album" as performed by Super Furry Animals. But on Strange Bird, Augie March's second album, the blend and glow are all their own.

Gelbison 1704 (Virgin Records Australia)

Also from the far side of the Pacific: 1704, the debut album by Sydney's Gelbison, was produced by Ian Ball of the British band Gomez, a synchronous pairing since both groups subscribe to similarly expansive notions of psychedelia. But the shock and pleasure of this record is not in how far afield Gelbison roam in search of transcendance: country sadness dressed in gothic strings and Renaissance trumpet; cranial-drill guitar and machine-drum hop; spaced-Beatles pop. The wonder is in the liquid but eloquent way this young quartet bundles it all together.

Dave Swarbrick Swarb! Forty Five Years of Folk's Finest Fiddler (Free Reed)

When viiolinist Dave Swarbrick made his first appearance on a Fairport Convention album, as a sideman on 1969's Unhalfbricking, he was in his late twenties and already a legend in British folk for his masterful technique and improvisational ardor. Swarbrick went on to become a permanent member of Fairport and its continuing legacy. But there is much more to his long rich life in fiddling, and Swarb! -- a deluxe, four-CD set with a booklet of exhaustive, but not exhausting, annotation -- covers it all, from his 1961 debut on disc (with folk patriarch Ewan MacColl) to his latest solo work. In between: studio and live tracks by Swarbrick's band Whippersnapper; rare important recordings with the Ian Campbell Group; excerpts from Swarbrick's lifelong association with Martin Carthy; and a feast of previously unissued Fairport. Through it all, Swarbrick bows and burns with the magnificent fire and cheerful authority that has made him a British musical treasure.

The Spiders Glitzkrieg (Acetate)

With fast songs about faster women and slow death: Glitzkreig is a kamikaze-glitter romp that sounds like it was written and cut in L.A. in 1973 by a band of recovering libertines, then stuffed into a closet full of broken mirror balls and ruined, stacked-heel boots for thirty years. The Spiders, in fact, are modern, heavy-glam lads from Austin, Texas, who rock with the crunchy attention to detail of period scholars. The riffs and wrecking-ball power chords combine the punch and sizzle of early Cheap Trick and Killer-era Alice Cooper, while singer-guitarist Christopher Benedict has a bit of elfin Devo running through his yelp: Mark Mothersbaugh channeling Marc Bolan.

Tales From the Australian Underground -- Singles 1976-1989 (Feel Presents)

One more blast from Oz: Two vacuum-packed discs of rare singles and EP tracks from the dawn and roaring heyday of Australian punk. Compiler-annotator Tim Freeman opens the proceedings with the two bands that started it all there -- Sydney's Radio Birdman and the Saints from Brisbane -- then plunges into the vinyl cupboards of cult heroes and fleeting legends alike. Nick Cave's original bad seeds the Birthday Party, gnarly art-garage band the Moodists, biker-Nuggets brigands the Lipstick Killers, power-pop artisans the Sunnyboys and outback-noir impressionists the Triffids are just a few of the more than forty bands remembered and celebrated here, at high volume and in peak form.

The Minus 5 I Don't Know Who I Am (Return to Sender/Normal)

It is time to stop thinking of this mischievous combo as an R.E.M. side project. Yes, singer-guitarist Scott McCaughey is a veteran R.E.M. sideman. Yes, he co-founded this loose aggregate of singers and players with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. But McCaughey, also the longtime wit and voice of the Young Fresh Fellows, is a smart, sharp songwriter with an encyclopedic grip on rock & roll classicism. Indeed, his bigger problem may be that some people mistake his cunning for mere cleverness. This special German release should fix that. Recorded for but not used on the Minus 5's 2001 album, Let the War on Music Begin, these songs are about civil war -- the internal kind -- and McCaughey sings them with magnetic candor inside music (played by various Minus 5 friends including Jeff Tweedy of Wilco) that is spidery, spectral and not just for R.E.M. completists.

A Soldier's Sad Story -- Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73 (Kent)

This remarkable compilation is a timely reminder of the high, hidden costs of war, the ones you don't hear about in Pentagon briefings. In these twenty-four dynamite R&B sides, written and recorded at the height of the Vietnam conflict, black men and women alike battle fear, loneliness and loss, at the front and back home. Among the mighty voices raised in anger, worry and triumphant soul: Freda Payne ("Bring the Boys Home"), Mel and Tim ("Mail Call Time"), Joe Tex ("I Believe I'm Gonna Make It"), Swamp Dogg (his gritty reading of John Prine's "Sam Stone") and Tiny Watkins ("A Soldier' Sad Story"). Listen in admiration and amazement, then pray that history does not repeat itself.

The Golden Hornet Project

This protean body of music -- twenty CD-Rs, packaged in a custom, three-ring binder -- was independently released in 2002. I didn't hear it until last spring, and it will be far into 2004 before I fully absorb the ambition and invention of instigators Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski. I know Reynolds best as the drummer-pianist and leader of the Golden Arm Trio, an Austin, Texas-based power-jazz merger of John Zorn's Naked City and the 1970s radical-prog band Henry Cow. But Reynolds -- like Zorn, without the heavy weather -- freely charges into other realms as a composer-performer: string quartets, symphonies, soundtracks, improvised super-rock. The Golden Hornet Project is, in a sense, his collaborative autobiography with friend and composer Stopschinski, a catalog of their adventures crossbreeding classical futurism and punk esprit. Among my faves here so far: a live Golden Arm blowout at the Austin club Emo's in 2001; the group's score to F.W. Murneau's 1926 silent film, Faust; and the Magma-Boredoms-like bass-drums rumble of AARFYSTEE. You can buy the entire set for five bucks a disk, or order separate (and additional) works on CD-R for about the same rate at goldenhornetproject.com -- not much to ask for a leap of faith.