11 May 2010

"Turning Blue" with Jay Reatard: Joe reviews "Singles 2006-2007"

The first time I heard of Jay Reatard was when I saw an upcoming concert listed in City Pages, and thought to myself, "Man, that's a horrible last name."
The next time I heard about him, he was dead.
Reatard's death earlier this year (he died in his sleep in January as a result of, a Memphis media outlet reported, "cocaine toxicity, and alcohol was a contributing factor in his death") garnered widespread media coverage, which is ironic, given that he already had an amazing thing going for him. During his short 29 years on this planet, he performed with several different bands in addition to performing as a solo artist. He recorded an amazing 22 albums and was featured on nearly 100 other releases. It seems he packed a lot of living into a few years.
So, it was a pretty easy call to make this week to grab Reatard's "Singles 2006-2007" when I saw it sitting on the shelf at the Hennepin County Library. There are 17 tracks on the double-disc set (with disc two featuring a DVD a live performances from around the world), making this two-year glimpse into his career about as lengthy as some other singles collections from bands that were around for far longer.
I didn't know what to expect when I threw the disc in the car stereo on the way home. The first two tracks, "Night of Broken Glass" and "Another Person," seem to channel, respectively, Big Black and Devo, and neither sounds very locked down. By the third track, however, the gorgeous "All Over Again," Reatard's footing steadies, and when "Feeling Blank Again" hits, it's clear that the fuse has hit the payload. The next 13 tracks are an amazing mix of early punk rock energy (think the Damned or the Adicts) with the sort of sloppy tunefulness that reminded me why I like garage rock in the first place.
Reatard's sheer productivity seems to attest to a theory I've long held: rock music is meant to be recorded minimally and released as soon as possible without any tinkering. Each of the songs on "Singles 2006-2007" sounds as if it was recorded on a boom box and released the week later. And that's a great thing, because the energy and enthusiasm completely comes across, with positively crackling results.
The Smiths knew this theory. The Birthday Party knew this one-shot recording theory. When you get bands like Nine Inch Nails spending five years on an album, Axl Rose spending a decade on "Chinese Democracy," or Brian Wilson spending almost 30 on "Smile," what you get sounds exactly like what you'd expect: a labored opus. Jay Reatard's music is refreshingly free from this trend. It's almost tempting to think, while listening to these songs, that you are listening to a tape of a really good high school band your friends are in: the quality is low, but it doesn't matter, because what you are hearing is refreshingly alive and new.
Ironically, one of the songs on "Singles" is called "Turning Blue." It seems to foreshadow Reatard's eventual end.

"You got me sweating
/ shaking in my skin/ I know it's nice/ to find beginnings and ends/ As sad as it seems/ you're turning blue in my dreams"

I'm upset that I won't be able to see Reatard live. I can only imagine what that would have been like. But he's left us an impressive amount of material to wade through, and if his other stuff is anything like "Singles 2006-2007," count me in.

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