All posts by Andre Salles

Jandek 101
Part Five: I Know You Well

#81. Los Angeles Saturday (2015).

We are now in a long run of Jandek live albums – 17 of them, to be exact – that jump around in the timeline, but mainly feature the Rep’s late-career muse, Sheila Smith. She’s on 13 of these 17 albums, including this one, and she’s appeared on stage with the Rep more than any other musician. She’s a fun and engaging performer, able to improvise swaths of lyrics on command and match the vibe of whatever the Rep is doing, but it’s clear that she means more to him than just that. So much of this album and the ones to follow mirror the back-and-forth found on Modern Dances, the flirtatious and fun banter of two people who obviously thrive on one another. For years Jandek listeners wondered what the Rep’s relationship with Nancy might have been like. Now we can see a similar one play out before our eyes.

I say “before our eyes” on purpose, because Los Angeles Saturday remains the only Jandek album not yet issued on CD. It exists in DVD form only, and it offers a good opportunity to talk about these Jandek DVDs. Most of the live albums have an accompanying visual component, which means that hours upon hours of footage of the Representative from Corwood exist now. To me, these concert films are the final nail in the image of the Rep as some kind of tortured recluse. Even within the concerts we have available since 2004, though, the Rep has slowly opened up more – his initial M.O. was to never look at or acknowledge the audience, but on Los Angeles Saturday he’s smiling and clearly enjoying himself. And I think the difference is the other Smith.

Los Angeles Saturday was recorded at the Echo in Los Angeles on May 24, 2014, just one month after the Brussels show, which was one month after the St. Louis show. We are not far into Sheila Smith’s tenure as a Jandek fixture, but she owns this recording. The two Smiths are backed up by guitarist and violinist Emily Curran, bassist and sometimes drummer Kris Bernard and drummer Marcus Savino, and the Rep and Smith trade off guitar, bass, drums and singing. It begins like most shows from this era, with the Rep on acoustic guitar and Smith on drums, playing two despondent and long laments.

But when the band arrives, and Smith takes the microphone, the proceedings take a turn for the riotous. The back-and-forth on “I Got It,” “Tell Me True” and “I Changed My Mind” is delightful, and it’s even more fun to watch than it is to listen to. I mean, the Rep dances and bops across the stage, enjoying himself in a way we’ve never seen, and the moments in which the two Smiths look into each other’s eyes are magnetic. This is the most romantic Jandek performance, and having it available only on DVD means that the visual element cannot be divorced from the music. This is how it happened. And it’s oddly beautiful.

No tracks available online.

#82. Dublin Friday (2016).

One of the few pre-Sheila Smith live albums to come out during this period, Dublin Friday documents a solo acoustic show at the Douglas Hyde Gallery on June 13, 2008. The Rep performs an hour-long piece called “He Said Nothing,” which is broken up into eight sections. It tells the story of a jealous man listening to the paramour of the woman he loves babble on, with contemptuous people hanging on his every word. Some of it is venomous, all of it is well-written and funny. “He said nothing, and they acted like he was saving the world…”

Musically this is very similar to other acoustic guitar and vocals recordings, but there’s something oddly magical about this one. It casts a peculiar spell. I have no proof that this un-nameable quality is what caused the Rep to consider this one for early release, but it captivates me every time I listen. The guitar seems to be in standard tuning, the dissonance entirely brought about by the way it’s played, and the Rep sings this one in a more restrained voice. The entire thing sounds relaxed and comfortable, like the Rep telling us as story.

I can’t explain the web this one spins. It is, to date, the last Jandek album to feature just acoustic guitar and voice, though it was recorded before Houston Saturday 2011, and it would be tempting to consider this the ideal performance in this style. There’s an ease and a confidence to it that comes through. I criticize the solo-instrument studio albums, but there’s something about watching and listening to the Rep do this inimitable, trademark thing live that is still thrilling.

Listen to “He Said Nothing Part Five.”

#83. London Residency (2017).

Sheila Smith’s ongoing tenure with Jandek begins here, with a three-night residency at London’s Café Oto in February of 2014. She’d shared the stage with the Rep twice before this – in 2012 for the Houston Thursday punk show and in 2009 for the performance that will see release after this one – but these three nights were her full initiation to the project. London Residency collects all three shows in a beautiful six-CD box set, and all together this thing is four hours and 50 minutes long. Listening to all of it is a daunting experience, but it also makes the case for Smith’s continued participation nicely.

The two Smiths are joined here by bassist Jack Lowe and drummer Justin Clay (of Galveston, Texas band Darwin’s Finches). As per usual with this era of Jandek, the musicians all swap instruments at different times, the Rep playing electric and acoustic guitar, keys, harmonica and drums at different times. There’s a tremendous variety to these sets, as the band nimbly delivers slow acoustic numbers, mid-tempo keyboard-accented pieces and raging punk. All three shows start slower and build their way up, the Rep opening the first and third with acoustic sets (“Trash Man” is a new chapter in the Rep’s self-loathing, and he runs through “If I Waited Twenty Hours” from What Else Does the Time Mean in the third show) and the second with “I Laughed,” which sets his sing-speak narration against odd acoustic slide guitar.

And in each show, the intensity builds to an explosion. Sheila takes the mic for most of the louder material, and her lyrics are to the point and funny. “I hope that when I die I’m wearing a t-shirt that says ‘see you later,’” she shouts, and gives us the prototype of her “Maybe You’ve Died” on “You Didn’t Respond.” The Rep moans his way through slower pieces like “The Stars,” which benefits greatly from Smith’s keyboards. The standout show here is the third, which delivers the most variety: a longer-than-usual acoustic set, Smith’s wry poetry on “Am I Alive,” either Clay or Lowe singing on the mad “Vagabond King,” an extraordinary 22-minute dirge called “The Day of Dread” and a wistful closer in “Somebody I’m Not.”

There’s a ton of material here, and it would be impossible to dig deep into all of it. But London Residency is a landmark Jandek live release, both in terms of its sheer size and its historical significance. It’s also a fascinating listen, demonstrating how loose and freeform this era of the Jandek saga will be. Sheila Smith makes her mark here for the first time, writing herself into the Jandek story, and she leaves no doubt that she belongs here. This chapter of Jandek is still happening, and it’s a joy to hear the Rep so open, so inspired.

A word about Corwood serial numbers, since this is the first time they truly come into play. Every Jandek album has a serial number, beginning with Ready for the House, which was numbered 0739. As far as I know, London Residency was the first one to be issued out of order. Occasionally, the Rep will leave a gap – he will put out something intended for later in the collection, and number it accordingly. In this case, London Residency (0821) came out after the next two, but was always intended to slot in here. It’s a strange system, one that would under other circumstances make this his 85th album, but we go by the order on the official discography, which is arranged by serial number. I know, this is truly in the weeds, but it illustrates the sometimes logic-defying nature of listening to Jandek.

No tracks available online.

#84. New Orleans Monday (2016).

And here we go all the way back to Sheila Smith’s first on-stage appearance with the Rep, a performance recorded at Dixon Concert Hall at Tulane University in New Orleans on March 16, 2009. This one actually provides an interesting auditory and visual clue as to how Ghost Passing was recorded, since it features the Rep on piano and Smith on theremin for an hour. The piece is called “The Fantasy,” further linking it to Ghost Passing – it may as well have been called “Fantasy Zero,” for it is the prototype of the six pieces contained in that set.

Like the six Ghost Passing pieces, this one is a musical conversation, the Rep and Smith varying the intensity of their playing to match each other throughout. This performance gives off the same otherworldly vibe they would conjure in the studio (and who knows if Ghost Passing was recorded before this, shortly after, or years later), and is just as wild a listen. It could be argued that if you have Ghost Passing, you don’t need this, but the DVD is something to behold. Watching Smith in her first musical back-and-forth with the Rep, with no words needed, is enlightening.

This was also, I should mention, about the time that the aforementioned I Know You Well, the full-on Jandek documentary, was released. It’s remarkable, and almost fully peels back the curtain on the Rep as a person and an artist. It’s available on Vimeo on Demand, and is very much worth a watch for those interested in the music above the mystery.

Listen to “The Fantasy.”

#85. Austin Tuesday (2017).

In addition to spotlighting the Sheila Smith era of Jandek, this run of live albums focuses on the Rep’s performances in his home state of Texas. Seven of the 17 concerts documented in this stretch happened in Texas, including this one and four of the next five. Texas shows are not infrequent – the Rep has played 20 of them since 2004 – but each of these feel like events, even more so than shows in other places. I often wonder what the Rep’s reputation is in his home state, and how his work is looked upon by his fellow Texans.

Austin Tuesday was recorded on February 16, 2016 at the Austin Public Library, of all places, and is a chamber music show of constantly interesting dimension. In addition to the Rep and Smith, who alternate on piano, violin and vocals, the featured performers here are Maegan Ellis (a member of the Austin Civic Wind Ensemble) on clarinet, Elaine Barber of the Austin Symphony on harp, and Eric Lyday on drums. Lyday, it must be noted, is the subject of one of the funniest newspaper corrections of all time.

The show itself is a slow and patient thing, as you might expect. Barber’s harp provides the foundation, with the Rep and Smith’s keyboards there for accent more than rhythm. The Rep’s scratchy violin playing on songs like “Ultimate Bet” must be heard to be believed, and it contrasts nicely with the tuneful clarinet work from Ellis. The Rep’s lyrics are dark and poetic, Smith’s more lighthearted. (Her first line: “I’ve got seven pounds of honey, I’ll have to store it in your room.”) Lyday accentuates with deep bass drum hits and cymbals, but lets the orchestral instruments move things forward.

The most successful pieces here find the Rep and Smith trading off vocal lines, as they often do. “Happy Girl” is a little joy, the Rep describing the title character, Smith wishing she was her, and the Rep confirming “that is you.”  And closer “The Man With the Hat” is a pure delight, the two Smiths openly flirting, trading French lines. “Je veux tenir ton chapeau!” “Allez-vous!” I can’t help but smile. Austin Tuesday is a small-scale show, but one with plenty of pleasures.

Listen to “Happy Girl.”

#86. Dallas Thursday (2017).

Three months later, on May 19, 2016, the Rep and Smith set up shop at the Texas Theatre in Dallas for a cool jazz show. The Rep plays bass here, and the Smiths are joined by Chris Curiel (of Dallas band The Free Loaders) on trumpet and Andrew Miller on keyboards. The Rep hands the mic to Smith for the entirety of the 77-minute set, and she sings the whole thing in a breathy, low tone that works well.

With no drums or percussion, this music floats in the air, unmoored. The Rep plays random low rumblings while Miller sticks to an electric piano sound and gives us chiming chords with lots of space. And over all of this, Curiel solos like Miles Davis, blaring at times and restrained at others. This whole thing sounds like something Miles might have put together, aside from the vocals, and the atmosphere conjured here feels like a smoky club sinking underwater. It’s the same mood throughout, but it is a legitimately transporting one.

Here Smith seems to rein in her tendency to sing about whatever is on her mind. I would bet that these lyrics were written by the Rep, particularly pieces like “Despair” and “Love Denied.” They’re as rich with imagery and loneliness as anything in the Jandek catalog, and Smith delivers them with an almost reverent touch. While this can be said of nearly all Jandek live records, this one is like nothing the Rep has ever done, and seeing it live must have been quite an experience.

Listen to “A Dream.”

#87. Houston Friday (2017).

This one follows on nicely from the Dallas show, even if it was recorded eight months later. This show took place on January 6, 2017, at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, with the Rep and Smith joined by bassist Mark Riddell and drummer Richard Cholakian. On this one, the Rep confines himself to vocals, and Smith plays keyboards, never once singing. It’s something of a mirror image to the Dallas show, since these pieces also float along, with no driving percussion or guitar.

The tone, in fact, is often similar to Manhattan Tuesday, Smith playing eerie organ dirges while the Rep speaks and sings in his lower register. Many of these pieces, like the 12-minute “Wild Places,” threaten to collapse at any time, their foundations are so slim. Riddell is barely a presence, playing to moments instead of to the whole, and Cholakian is there for flourishes, not for underpinning. A piece like “Next Monday” rises and falls on the single-note chimes Smith plays, and that the band manages to stay with it for the whole running time without evaporating is fascinating.

This one creates its own peculiar atmosphere. More than most, this one cannot be used as background. Its utter sparseness demands attention. In many ways the air between the notes is like the fifth band member here, and the whole of Houston Friday comes off as an exercise in minimalism. This is an hour and a half of music that is barely there, and even when things get more intense on the final two tracks, it’s still spare. And yet there’s an indescribable pull here as well, an atmosphere that was probably electric in the room. The spaces between the notes here are every bit as interesting as the notes themselves, and that’s a kind of strange magic.

Listen to “These Things.”

#88. San Francisco Friday (2018).

The guitars come roaring back on San Francisco Friday, a 90-minute show recorded on October 9, 2015 at the Chapel in San Francisco. If you’re paying attention to the dates, we’ve gone back in time again, to the period after Los Angeles Saturday and before Austin Tuesday. This is the eighth show in the modern Sheila Smith era, so she’s integrated into the Jandek project by this point, but the extraordinary jazz, chamber and ambient performances described above are still to come.

This one is much more of a rock show. There are three electric guitarists – the Rep, Smith and Lucas Gorham – along with drummer Josh Pollock and accordion player Mark Gregory. It starts in a far more chaotic way than it means to go on, with the impenetrable “Obstruct Me,” but the band finds their footing on the 18-minute “We Got Waves.” Pollock lays down a slinky beat while Gorham fills an ocean with his slide guitar, and the Rep and Smith engage in their call-and-response lyrical conversation over the top. It’s such an effective mood that when the Rep shouts “let’s go” and the big guitar chords kick in, it feels like tables being overturned.

From there, a lot of this show traffics in standard blues patterns. “The Sounds” is a bit of an event, the Rep describing in the lyrics how creating Jandek music makes him feel and why he keeps doing it. He describes getting his first guitar and playing it for 20 hours straight, just listening to the sounds it made, and those sounds keep him coming back. “The Pharmacy” opens with a guitar part reminiscent of the Knight Rider theme, and finds the Rep shouting about his anger over Gregory’s drone-like accordion. Closer “Desecrate Me” is something of a roadhouse blues workout with a skipping beat.

San Francisco Friday is an enjoyable rock show that doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the performances that came after it. I like that it reaches back to the blues-rock roots of albums like You Walk Alone, but there’s a strange sense of normalcy to that tone as well, and by the end of this album I found myself wishing for something a little more odd, a little less immediate. Basically, a little more Jandek.

Listen to “The Sounds.”

#89. Hamman Hall (2018).

Fast forward to one of the most recent Jandek shows to come out on CD. This one was recorded at (you guessed it) Hamman Hall at Rice University in Houston on April 21, 2017, which was a Friday. And since Houston Friday was also recorded on a Friday in 2017, the usual naming convention just wouldn’t work. Hence, the first Jandek album to be named after the venue in which it was performed. This one is often referred to as the country show, and it’s easy to see why. The Rep and Smith bring back Mark Riddell on bass, and add Austin Sepulvado on electric guitar and pedal steel master Will Van Horn. The Rep and Smith trade off on drums and vocals.

The instrumentation is certainly country, but the pieces here are a form of windswept ambient music. Every number is slow and sad-sounding, with Van Horn’s beautiful pedal steel filling out most of the space. Percussion is sparse, Sepulvado sticks to minimal picked lines in a clean tone, and Riddell is again one of the most economical bass players you could ask for. It’s not much of a hoedown, is what I am saying. But the Rep’s lyrics seem to anticipate a country backdrop, dipping into cowboy tales: “They was whippin’ up a hailstorm in Amarillo, we was hiding in the canyons around there…’

If there is a complaint to be had here, it is with the Rep’s voice, which is more high-and-lonesome than usual. He strains here for notes in a way that can almost be comical if you’re not acclimated to his vocal style. Smith fares better, her stream-of-consciousness vocals fitting the minor key tone of “Hey There Beautiful” well, and she croons waltz “Just Giving” in her off-kilter way. The tone of Hamman Hall stays consistent throughout, but it’s such a distinctive tone, such an intriguing concept – a Jandek country show! – that it wraps you up in it.

Listen to “Colorado Sky.”

#90. Houston Tuesday (2018).

Houston again. This show was recorded on October 20, 2015, 11 days after San Francisco Friday, at Walter’s Downtown. The Rep and Smith are accompanied by three Houston musicians: guitarist Joe Wozny, bassist Thomas Helton and drummer Ryan Weston. The Rep and Smith trade off on guitar, harmonica and vocals. This is more of a stripped-down affair than we’ve heard recently, and like the San Francisco show, it opens with a pair of numbers that might make you nervous for the rest, particularly tumbling opener “The Wary Stalk.”

The band finds its thunder halfway through “Just Tell Me,” and things pick up from there, but this is largely a dirge-y affair. The Rep bellows his way through the still-point “Absent Minded,” while Smith sings “Havoc,” with its steady beat and root-note bass line. There’s a menacing tone to much of this, especially when the whole band kicks in on a rocker like “Magic.” But mostly this is the sound of restraint, of a potentially powerful ensemble holding back for reasons unknown.

I spoke extensively about the fatigue that set in partway through the single-instrument studio albums. Is there a similar sense of exhaustion when it comes to these live documents? I don’t think so. Houston Tuesday is not the best of these, and it pales next to some of the more innovative live excursions. But it’s still unpredictable enough that there’s no sense of retreading the same ground. We’re 14 albums deep into the most extensive run of live recordings in the Jandek catalog, and each one is still exciting in new ways. Even a mediocre entry like this one has a lot to recommend it, within the universe the Rep has spun for himself.

Listen to “Havoc.”

#91. Los Angeles Friday (2018).

It’s clear by this point that the Rep tries on these ensembles like coats. Some of them fit snugly, others are a little tight or a little loose. Sometimes the ones you expect to work, like the Mike Watt jam that makes up Houston Saturday, aren’t as successful as they ought to be. And sometimes the strangest collective of musicians makes for the most interesting experience. Los Angeles Friday is one of those.

This performance was recorded at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles on August 5, 2016. In addition to the Rep and Sheila, both of whom only add vocals this time, the featured player is Will Toledo, the mastermind of Car Seat Headrest. Toledo is on guitar, while Marty Sataman plays bass and Kyle Mabson lays down vintage-sounding electronic beats, like from the era of Run-DMC. The cheeseball drums are the first sounds you hear on Los Angeles Friday, and they’re startling. A Jandek dance-rock show? In some ways, yes.

In other ways, though, this is unlike anything else I own. (Still not tired of typing that phrase.) The wild card is Toledo, and he spends these two hours creating intricate, gorgeous guitar atmospheres over these beats. The effect is something both grounded and in orbit. Opener “Rap It Like You Should” (yes, that is the real title) sets an otherworldly tone – it’s danceable, sure, but it’s also completely alien music. The band settles in on the 16-minute “The Bus and the Apartment,” a story about nothing much happening – the Rep and Sheila get surprisingly emotional about riding buses around all day. “The American” is a highlight, the Rep arguing that no one just “looks American,” and that it doesn’t matter where you’re from.

The whole thing comes to a head on the monumental 21-minute closer “Things That Never Change,” which is an ironic title for a song that changes tempo more than once. The buildup is convincing, with Toledo working his magic. It’s a successful ending to a very successful show, and the true testament to its unlikely power is that by the end, this collection of musicians feels like a natural Jandek band.

Listen to the first disc.

#92. London Thursday (2018).

And just like that, we’re back in the pre-Sheila Smith days for a couple releases. This smoky, thoroughly enjoyable show was recorded at Café Oto in London, the site of the London Residency shows the following year. It was performed on April 4, 2013, with the Rep on keyboards, his old partner Alex Nielson on drums, John Edwards on double bass and Byron Wallen on trumpet. Wallen is without doubt the featured artist here – he’s a well-known and award-winning jazz player. Edwards is pretty famous too as the bassist for Status Quo.

Together these people make strange, beautiful music for just over an hour and a half. The basis is jazz – the Rep plays with a Herbie Hancock-style electric piano sound, and the trio behind him make jazz-like noises. But this exists in a middle ground between straight jazz and fusion, as Nielson refuses to simply play a beat – he’s improvising all over the place, following what the Rep is doing, which leaves Edwards and Wallen to fill in the spaces. Both are terrific at this, of course, and though none of this sounds pre-planned in any way, it all comes off well. Wallen especially gets into the groove of this more readily than I expected. He’s great throughout.

There are love songs here and death songs, the Rep singing most in his airy, quieter voice. Right in the middle of the first disc is a new take on “I Know You Well,” one of the signature songs from 1986’s Follow Your Footsteps. This version is more menacing, with Edwards scraping out an unsettling bass line with drum flourishes from Nielson. I wonder if any of the other musicians knew what was happening, or how significant this would be to those who have followed Jandek for the past 30 years. This revisit is fascinating to me. It’s an ironic one to bring back up, too, now that we know the Rep better than we ever have. Do we know him well? I don’t think so, but probably as well as we’re ever going to.

The rest of the show is quite enjoyable too. Jazz seems to fit the Rep’s vibe better than some other musical identities he tries on, mainly because freeform improvisation is part of the music’s DNA. The Rep’s chosen cohorts here improvise really well, and set a downbeat atmosphere for the entire set. Two nights later, the Rep and Nielson would rejoin Richard Youngs in Glasgow for what is, to date, the final performance of the O.G. Jandek trio. It’s no wonder he was in a nostalgic mood. London Thursday is another highlight in a run of albums full of highlights.

Listen to the new “I Know You Well.”

#93. Gainesville Monday (2019).

It’s all the way back to 2008 for the last album in this run of live documents. Again, I can see why the Rep would want this one out there sooner. Recorded on December 1, 2008 at the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, Florida, this one is a power trio record, but for the first time with a trio lineup the Rep plays bass. He’s joined by Rob Rushin on guitar and Chad Voight on drums, and this is a group that gets one another right away. They play eight long songs over 100 minutes, and this is one that could have gone on for a while longer and I would have been OK with it.

As always, this is music that doesn’t fit neatly into little boxes, but there are hints of doom metal throughout in Rushin’s big, distorted guitar lines and Voight’s pounding on the toms. The seven-note figure that Rushin plays through opener “I Like It” is delightful, and he has more where that came from. He changes tone often here too, playing fuzzy noise one minute and clean strums the next. He’s on acoustic for several tracks, giving “It Seems Obvious” a gentle framework to build around and “The Picture” a repetitive, mesmerizing folk foundation. (This is not the same “The Picture” from 2003’s The Place, alas.) And he puts the guitar through a strange series of effects to create clouds of sound on “The Call Imaginary.”

This is another one on which everything works, in which the Rep finds co-conspirators who understand what he does and adapt to fit. The Rep’s bass playing is typically all over the map here, but with Voight and Rushin providing such a solid grounding, it works. An interesting note, given that this one is as forward-looking as anything he did in 2008: the cover of Gainesville Monday is literally a chair beside a window. It’s a nice touchstone to end this series of 17 live albums, all of which have been enjoyable in different ways, and all of which have pointed toward the collaborative future of the project.

Listen to “Here Now Today.”

#94. The Ray (2019).

Just when you thought the studio albums were a thing of the past, the Rep reignites them with this crazy thing. I can tell you that the Jandek message boards and social media pages lit up with this announcement, the first studio release in five years. Nobody knew what to expect, and I’d say no one predicted what we got. This, to me, is the magic of Jandek studio albums. The live shows are fairly well documented, and you can find out who played what on a particular date, so when live albums are announced there’s already a lot of information about them. Not so the studio records. How many tracks? How long is the album? How long are the songs? What instruments are being played? Who is on the record? None of this information is available in advance. Even the cover is mysterious.

Here is what we got: a single track that runs 61 minutes, called “The Ray.” This one is like the Jandek version of acid psych rock – it’s a huge tower of sound, featuring drums, bass, at least two guitars and some form of synthesizer, over which the Rep sing-speaks a lyric that is part internal monologue and part conversation. Everything is drenched in reverb and echo, and the mix is muddy and off-putting. It feels like falling through thickening quicksand, like it’s closing in and cutting off your air.

I have no way of knowing whether this theory is true, but I think this is all the Rep, overdubbing himself on each instrument. (Some of them could be Sheila too, like the drums.) It sounds like a hermetic effort, like the first Jandek album since Dublin Friday to have been performed alone. In a lot of ways, this, the 55th Jandek studio album, feels like the first, like a dispatch from a lonely musician making the noise he hears in his head. This is also, to date, the last Jandek studio album, and we’re back to wondering whether we will ever hear another one. The Ray is unique, an hour of noise unlike any hour of noise the Rep has given us, and if it is the last of the studio records, it’s quite a way to go.

Listen to the whole album.

#95. Austin Sunday 2007 (2019).

Austin Sunday 2007 begins a run of live albums we’re still in, as of this writing. Notably, this one picks up where Richmond Sunday left off – the Rep returns to chronologically releasing his shows here, a practice he has stuck with since, with two exceptions. This one was recorded on March 17, 2007, which my calendar tells me was a Saturday, but no matter. It was only six days after the Richmond show, but 22 releases separate the two in the catalog. Recorded at Central Presbyterian Church, the Rep played guitar and was joined by Ian Wadley on drums, Tom Carter on bass and Shawn David McMillan on harmonium. The latter two have played together on a few records.

I can imagine the Rep sitting on this one for a bit, since it’s not the most impressive show. It’s six songs in an hour, and the power trio at the core both improvises loosely and keeps the tempos to a crawl. The harmonium offers the unfamiliar element here – it’s basically a pump organ – and McMillan slathers these pieces with sustained notes. It’s an interesting touch but it doesn’t do a lot to infuse this with energy. The Rep’s playing is as unrestrained as ever, the thick chords spilling out of his amp, but even so, dirges like “I Think I’ll Go” and “The Way It Is” just kinda hang there.

Lyrically this is dark as well, the Rep announcing on “The Way It Is” that “I don’t like myself, sorry but I don’t, I feel like a failure, don’t ask me why.” “Out Loud” is about putting a public face on misery: “Put on a face, be happy with the crowd, but when you go home, you scream out loud.” The comparatively rocking “Shake Loose” is about throwing off the burdens others put on you, but so much of this album is about the burdens we put on ourselves. As is often the case, the mental discord matches the musical discord. But there are many more successful examples of this throughout the catalog. Austin Sunday 2007 isn’t an essential experience.

Listen to “The Jaunt.”

#96. Berlin Sunday (2020).

All of a sudden, we’re in the year of COVID-19. I mention this because the pandemic has had a clear impact on Corwood Industries. Berlin Sunday was initially announced on the Corwood website’s lyric page, so we knew it would be next. But in March, shortly after the pandemic began, the Rep stopped accepting or sending out mail orders, and Berlin Sunday was removed from the site. The next album announced was in April, and it was Boston Friday, two catalog numbers after this one. There was a hole in the catalog, and no word on when or how it would be filled. It was a weird time.

Corwood did start re-shipping in June, and they did promptly offer Berlin Sunday, first as a DVD and then as a CD, and the releases have come fast and furious since then. We’re up to eight this year with no end in sight. This one sends us back to the future: it was recorded on November 12, 2017 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Germany, and it brings Sheila Smith back front and center. She sings, the Rep plays guitar (and later keys), and they are joined by Ramin Bijan of long-running band Die Turen on bass and Simeon Coster on drums.

This one is slinky. Coster and Bijan opt for a steady, almost trippy foundation, with the Rep sticking to high lead notes while Smith does her thing. At times this feels like the Jandek version of Cibo Matto, with danceable beats and solid bass lines under Smith’s always winning lyric improvisations. There isn’t a sexier Jandek song than “He Do It Best,” Smith singing about spending the night with someone. “I got it all under control,” she croons, then winks and adds “maybe not.”

This whole thing is just fun. It’s always a treat when the Rep has as solid a rhythm section as this, holding things down so he can fly off and do what he likes. His guitar style works well within this framework – it’s not the focus, but it adds to the atmosphere. This one feels like it was recorded in a smoky bar with dancers. The one minor misstep is the closer, “Disequilibrium,” on which the Rep plays keys, and it doesn’t work quite as well as his six-string embellishments. Still, though, Berlin Sunday is a treat. It is also, as of this writing, Sheila Smith’s last appearance in the Jandek catalog, and she shows here why that’s a bit of a shame.

Listen to “Attic Apartment.”

#97. Manhattan Saturday (2020).

Album number 98, Boston Friday, was released in April of this year. Its predecessor in the catalog, Manhattan Saturday, came out in June. This is the way of Jandek. There’s no question this one should come first – it was recorded on April 14, 2007, two months before the Boston show, and brings us back to the chronology of live releases. But if you’re anal retentive, that’s enough to give you a headache.

The music here will likely do the same, for most audiences. Manhattan Saturday is a trio show performed at the Abrons Art Center in New York with Tim Foljahn on bass and Pete Nolan on drums. Foljahn has a ton of releases of his own and has played with Thurston Moore and Cat Power, among others. Nolan is in a bunch of bands and runs his own record label. With Jandek they set a bit of a record: this is the single longest Jandek set ever performed. It runs two hours and 45 minutes and needs three CDs to contain it. Oh, and it only includes nine songs, so each one is a marathon.

Why are these songs so long? Well, it sounds to me like the Rep just liked playing with these guys and didn’t set any time limits. The Rep’s playing is energetic and full of life here, even when the tempos are slower, and Nolan and Foljahn match his ebb and flow perfectly. This is a monstrously noisy show, and every one of these songs makes enough racket to light your eardrums on fire. It’s ten minutes before the Rep even sings on opener “All the Boxes,” and those minutes are filled with dissonant, almost angry noise. The whole show follows suit – these are big, long, incendiary jams.

As he did a year prior in Chicago, the Rep centers a lot of his lyrics this time on prison stories, further igniting the speculation about whether he ever spent time. There’s a song literally called “Incarcerated,” and another called “No Bond,” on which the Rep shouts “You’re going to County! See you later!” “Action Justified” feels like a prisoner looking back on his crime, while “Chips of Paint” finds this same person looking around his cell, trying to find something to keep his eyes busy. I know that prison stories are a standard element of blues, but it still makes one wonder.

Manhattan Saturday is a long journey worth taking. It does take some self-awareness to end this lengthy set with a song called “Hours of Pain,” but if you like your Jandek punishingly loud, this won’t be painful at all. Plus it features one of the few contemporary pictures of the Rep on the cover. It’s a nice package, this one, and a strong entry in this run of live albums.

Listen to “Chips of Paint.”

#98. Boston Friday (2020).

Two months later, the Rep traveled to my former hometown and set up shop at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The performance, recorded on June 8, 2007, is one that fits with Richmond Sunday and London Thursday in the Jandek jazz file. The Rep plays bass, and he shares the stage with trumpeter Greg Kelley, sax player Jorrit Dijkstra (an associate professor at Berklee College of Music and a faculty member at the New England Conservatory) and drummer Eli Kezler. All of these players are well known within the improvisational and avant garde jazz communities.

The piece they play here has no title. It consists of 12 parts and an instrumental prelude, and it’s all pretty consistent, in that it all sounds like a very talented jazz band falling down a set of stairs slowly. The Rep sets the tempo with his loping bass work, and rather than spirited improvisations, Kelley and Dijkstra give us mournful blasts of melody. (It reminds me of the show I saw in Ann Arbor in 2008, which is coming up soon in the release order, I expect.) Over this the Rep sings about closing the doors and windows and shutting off the light, so he can’t even stare at anything. It’s as dark and lonesome as anything he’s written.

Dijkstra does switch to a lyricon on some tracks, and that instrument is interesting. Basically a synthesizer you play like a saxophone, it conjures up tones and atmospheres that can’t be recreated another way. As an extended piece, this one works well, title or no title, and it’s one of the few Jandek albums to have been recorded in a place I have been. It’s a nice reminder that this is all happening in the real world, even though it sounds like another one entirely.

Listen to “Part Ten.”

#99. Montreal Sunday (2020).

Another jazzy entry, this show was performed at La Salla Rossa in Montreal on June 24, 2007, just 16 days after the Boston show. The Rep is on electric guitar here, but he sticks to a cleaner tone throughout, and he’s joined by sax player Jean Derome, harpsichordist Loren Robert Carle and drummer Ray Dillard, all Canadian musicians with strong pedigrees. There’s no bass to be heard. This is a strange combination of tones, and the music these players make together is slow and unsettling.

The first track is sung partially in French, because that’s what you do when you’re in Montreal. “La Fenetre” (or “The Window”) finds the Rep singing about “streams of sex” while the odd mix of instruments swirl around him. Carle’s harpsichord is never used for rhythm or melody, just to spread tones like fairy dust over the proceedings. Derome mainly sticks to lower registers and plays bracing lines. Dillard improvises, but holds it together, following the Rep’s stabbing guitar playing. The Rep plays the harmonica fairly often here too, like only he can.

There are seven songs here, but most of the focus is on the two longer ones. “Flat Nothing” and “The Light I Know” account for more than an hour between them, and they both build up and up over their extended running times. “The Light I Know” crescendos so effectively that it feels like the showstopper, the Rep giving his all to the lyrics about death and release. (There is one more track, the crawling “Wherever I Go,” and it feels like a coda.) This isn’t a pleasant listen – the Rep’s lyrics are dark as always, and the focus is on his unchained voice – but it is a compelling one. This is one of the more curious Jandek ensembles, and though this was recorded in the summer, it makes me feel like Montreal in the winter.

Listen to “Wherever I Go.”

#100. Fort Worth Saturday (2020).

And here we are. The 100th Jandek album. In some ways I wish there were more of a celebratory aspect to this milestone release, but in others I like the fact that it’s just the next one. This was recorded just a little less than a month after the Montreal show, on July 21, 2007, at the Rose Marine Theater in Texas. This is the prototype Jandek country show, featuring fiddle and banjo player Ralph White (of the Bad Livers), pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, bassist Ryan Williams and drummer Will Johnson.

This one is interesting because we have, in Hamman Hall, the country Jandek sound in its final form. So this one can be seen as a rough draft, from which the Rep learned some things. A striking difference, to my ear, is that this Fort Worth show feels like a Jandek show with country/bluegrass instruments, where the Hamman Hall show (ten years later) feels like a whole new thing. I don’t feel like the Fort Worth performance is quite as successful, though it is intriguing to hear these seasoned players try to fit in with what the Rep is bringing to the table. He sings all of this in his high-and-lonesome voice, and plays harmonica here and there, but otherwise doesn’t contribute musically, so it’s strange that this sounds so much like his style anyway.

That said, some of the more successful pieces here are the ones in which the country elements are front and center. “No Dirt” glides forward on a plucked banjo figure and some waves of pedal steel, as the Rep announces, “I’m a new man! I got the Lord God in me!” The ensemble gets more comfortable with one another as they go, so the final tracks are among the best, especially the off-kilter boogie of “The Close.” Even so, this is one of the more scattered Jandek live shows, and the Rep would perfect this style later.

Around the time of this album’s release, several people (including myself) asked the Rep if he planned anything special for his hundredth album. The response was that the 101st would be the anniversary release, and it was, as you’ll see in a second. But I think reaching 100 albums deserves its own round of applause, and I like the idea that the hundredth is nothing special. It solidifies the idea that the Jandek saga will continue apace, with no end in sight. This is just the show that came up next in the rotation, and it happened to land at number 100. There’s a kind of poetic beauty in that.

No tracks available online.

#101. Rudyard’s (2020).

This one is the celebration. Now, I completely understand that Jandek is an unknown, underground musician, and when I say that some Jandek shows are legendary, I know that said legend only travels among a small group of people. But we’re in Jandek’s world here, and within this world, some shows are legendary. Near the top of the list is this one, his first ever hometown gig. Recorded on April 5, 2009 at Rudyard’s in Houston, this one was talked about in hushed tones from the moment the first bootleg clips hit the internet. If the Rep wanted a party for his centenary milestone, he couldn’t have picked a better show to release.

What makes this one special? Well, it’s nothing less than a full-on funk jam. It’s a trio show, the Rep on electric guitar with drummer Tyson Sheth and bassist Keith Vivens, both from Houston. But this is unlike any trio show the Rep has ever given us. For one thing, it’s a single song, the 75-minute “Two O’Clock Sun.” Yes, I said 75 minutes. For another, this one takes the idea of a rock-solid foundation for the Rep’s improvisations to its absolute extreme. Sheth starts off with a full-on four-on-the-floor beat, Vivens joins in with a deeply funky bassline, and the two of them don’t stop for an hour and a quarter.

And the Rep? He makes noise on the guitar, like no one else is around, but the rhythm section is so strong that whatever he does works. About ten minutes in he starts sing-speaking, and man, the crowd in this sweaty little club is INTO IT. Lyrics are impressionistic, each line spaced out for maximum impact, and his delivery pops. Seeing footage of this show is just revelatory. The Rep smiles! He shimmies! He interacts with the audience! It is the most fun he (or anyone else) has ever had at a Jandek show.

I’m so happy to have this on CD and DVD. This is one hell of a show. Sheth and Vivens show no signs of tiring, even as the song passes an hour in length, and their work is so solid that I never wanted it to end. Most Jandek shows are dark and desolate things, the Rep clearly working out some mental health issues while we listen. This one is just pure, unadulterated joy. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a great way to cap off this series of reviews, this deep dive into the catalog of a consistently compelling and fascinating individual and the dozens of musicians who have joined him through the years.

Watch a clip from “Two O’Clock Sun.”

* * * * *

So we’re not quite done, because of course while I was writing this series, the Rep issued album number 102. So I may as well write about that one too.

#102. Grinnell Saturday (2020).

This one goes back to the chronology – the show took place a little less than three months after the Fort Worth concert. But if the Rep were aiming to show off his diversity, he couldn’t have picked a better release to follow Rudyard’s. This one was recorded at Grinnell College in Iowa on October 6, 2007, and finds the Rep on piano, joined by several chamber musicians: Skye Carrasco on the violin, Jennifer Wohlenhaus on the oboe and Olivia Muzzy on double bass. Muzzy teaches bass at the University of Iowa, Wohlenhaus is first chair oboe with the Des Moines Symphony and Carrasco is a rock violinist and an Iowa City fixture.

The piece they perform, like the one played at the Boston show, has no title. It also has no lyrics. Over six lengthy sections, the instrumentalists imagine a strange symphony, one anchored by the Rep’s deliberate piano playing, but not bound to it. The result is quite lovely, the three orchestral musicians playing off of one another well, leaving space for one another. This is sort of like Atlanta Saturday with no lyrics and no percussion, but that sets it apart as a very different thing anyway. It’s further proof that the Jandek project can encompass abrasive, teeth-grinding noise as well as the pursuit of beauty.

And there we are. I am not sure I came any closer to understanding the draw this music has for me, but I hope I gave you a window on what it’s like to follow the Rep’s work with an open mind. He’s already announced album 103, documenting the next show in the chronology – a guitar trio effort recorded in Amsterdam. I have no idea when he will stop, or even why he would. The saga continues, and my strange fascination with it does as well.

Next week, music by people not in Jandek. Definitely Sufjan, probably a few others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jandek 101
Part Four: Where Do You Go From Here

#61. What Was Out There Disappeared (2009).

We are now in the last gasp of these acoustic guitar studio albums, and it’s probably just me projecting my own feelings, but it does seem like even the Rep has tired of them. What Was Out There Disappeared is eight songs over an hour of disc space, and there’s nothing here that the previous acoustic albums cannot give you. The playing and singing style is the same as it’s been, the dissonance is trademark Jandek by this point, and even the return of the piercing harmonica cannot muster up much excitement.

I do wonder whether this would be the case if the Rep had never performed live. If he were not, at the same time as this, collaborating with an endless variety of fascinating musicians to push himself in new directions on stage, would this album seem richer and more interesting? As with the previous few acoustic studio albums, there’s nothing in particular about What Was Out There Disappeared that knocks it below the Rep’s recent studio output. Opener “Going to Edinburgh” is a fine example of the more aggressive playing and singing you’ll find on Khartoum and Not Hunting for Meaning, and the 14-minute “Will There Be No More Photos” is no more or less interesting than something like “Silent Wander.” If this were all we had, it might be easier to treat each one like a treasure.

As it is, while there is nothing to specifically hold against this one, there’s nothing to specifically recommend it either. The first two songs seem to promise a conceptual piece about a trip to Scotland, but the lyrics turn inward from there, the Rep admitting he is “Painstakingly Critical” and apologizing for existing on “Your Eyes.” Perhaps the most interesting is the closer, “Lucky Cat,” which finds him moaning “I’m a lucky cat, I just ate a rat, I hope I find another one tomorrow.” It’s moments like this one that feel like the Rep pushing against the edges of this style he has created, and will soon slough off.

Listen to “Will There Be No More Photos.”

#62. Camber Sands Sunday (2009).

Camber Sands Sunday isn’t the best example of the Rep’s artistic restlessness, as it brings back the original Jandek trio players, Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums. Recorded on May 14, 2006 at Camber Sands Holiday Park in West Sussex, England, this one finds the trio in familiar territory, the Rep slashing and burning with his electric guitar and the rhythm section working hard to keep up and integrate with him. If anything, this one feels a little more chaotic, as the 11-minute opener “Pragmatic” feels like setting the holiday park ablaze, the Rep announcing he is “only 22, and has to be pragmatic.”

A surprising amount of Camber Sands Sunday is slow and dreamy, the Rep playing spacey long notes and holding those vocal syllables for ages. “The Idea of You” and closer “Stolen Powers” are particularly drawn out, Youngs and Neilson adding flourishes but not driving anything. This doesn’t quite play to their strengths, so it’s something of a relief when the thrashing and pounding starts up again. The 11-minute “My Party” is one of the heaviest proto-metal numbers this trio has delivered, all three musicians hammering away at their instruments until their hands bleed, the Rep off in his own universe of noise.

If the studio albums are open to criticism for sounding the same, then the live albums should be too. As terrific as the Youngs-Nielson Jandek trio is, they have a groove and they stay in it. This one sounds like Glasgow Friday, which is certainly not a bad thing – in fact, it gets both louder and softer than that show, as evidence that the players are refining what they do here. But the shock of the new isn’t really present. This is essentially the last hurrah of this trio on record – they have only played together twice more, and one of those performances (in Glasgow again, four days after this one) was not recorded properly, so we’ll never hear it. The five live albums we have with this lineup are all worthwhile listens, though, especially if you like your Jandek loud.

Listen to “Pragmatic.”

#63. Bristol Wednesday (2010).

This show is an absolute monster. It’s another electric guitar trio show with two well-known improv music artists, drummer Chris Corsano (of Brooklyn Wednesday’s lineup) and guitarist Michael “Mick” Flower, recorded at Cube Cinema in England three days after Camber Sands Sunday. This one, however, spans two sets and lasts for two and a half hours. Much to my surprise, Corsano and Flower lock into the Jandek thing more successfully here than Youngs and Neilson did earlier in the week, and the result is a massive wall of driving noise and power.

Oh, did I mention that this show only includes 10 songs? Opener “Only Twenty-Two” runs for a solid 24 and a half minutes, the Rep’s chaotic playing scraping against Flower’s more tone-setting strums and Corsano’s piledriver drumming. There’s no bass, but there doesn’t need to be – it’s all thick guitar molasses flung at high speeds. More than eight minutes of it goes by before the Rep even sings. The opening line, “I know you’re only twenty-two,” sets this up as the mirror image of “Pragmatic,” the two songs together detailing an age-inappropriate relationship from both sides.

As with the Camber Sands show, things certainly do slow down from there, but Corsano’s drumming does a nice job of propelling these lengthy excursions forward. A fun jam like “Wrap It Up” sports only two lines, “Wrap it up” and “You got to bring me your presents,” but the players jam on it for 12 minutes. The second set finds Flower trading in his guitar for a shahi baaja, an electrified Indian zither, and a marathon like the 16-minute “Mermaids Calling” is given an extra dimension thanks to its droning sounds. This show really is an endurance test – it’s punishingly loud and seemingly endless – and getting to the slow and spacey final track, “The Lesson,” feels like an achievement.

That’s not to suggest this isn’t an impressive performance. In its own way Bristol Wednesday steamrollers over previous guitar trio shows, and not just on sheer mass. With two shows under his belt, Corsano seems to truly get the Jandek vibe, and this beast of a show benefits greatly from his work. It’s like a big truck coming straight at you for two and a half hours. If that sounds like fun to you, this might be one to try.

Listen to the entire show.

#64. Canticle of Castaway (2010).

So here we are, at the final acoustic studio album (at least as of this writing). It’s worth taking a moment to understand the significance of this. The Jandek story has its origins in this sound – it has in many ways always been the story of a man alone in a room, playing an oddly tuned guitar and singing about his own loneliness. That’s what you’ll find here as well, but after 64 albums with this sound at the core, the Jandek project has evolved beyond it. The story from here on is one of collaboration, of finding fulfillment in new sounds and new people.

This may seem antithetical to Jandek as a concept, but that’s what makes this shift such a big deal. (Well, you know, a big deal in Jandek’s world, not so much outside it, but that’s where we’re living for the span of these reviews.) The cover of Canticle of Castaway is a straight-on black-and-white headshot of a younger Corwood representative, a little like the Six and Six cover, as if the Rep is paying homage to where he’s been one last time. The album contains three long songs about being alone. If this was not consciously designed as a farewell to this kind of Jandek record, I would be surprised.

As an album, it’s fine. Two of the songs are very long – opener “Don’t Go Out” is 29 minutes and is essentially “Silent Wander II,” while closer “Boys Like Blue” spans to 17 minutes, the Rep listing off colorful items of beauty before announcing that “all the colors disappeared, he’s resigned to black and white, colors of the deepest night, no matter, it’s better that way.” The song in between, the seven-minute “You Weren’t,” feels like an extension of the other two. All three tracks are in the slower strumming style we have come to know.

As a single document, this is nothing special, though it’s certainly a fine example of what the Rep has been giving us since 2002. But as a landmark on the larger journey, this one feels important. No one knew it at the time, but the studio albums were about to join the live albums as testaments to the Rep’s artistic growth.

Listen to “Don’t Go Out.”

#65. Toronto Sunday (2010).

The first Jandek show in Canada was recorded on September 17, 2006 at the Centre of Gravity in Toronto. It features three local musicians – avant garde guitarist Nilan Perera with drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Rob Clutton, who play in a jazz trio together. The way the Rep works is like a high-wire act. He enlists musicians in the cities he is visiting, musicians he normally has never met, and rehearses with them only once. The other players don’t have any idea what they will be doing until that rehearsal, and if it doesn’t gel right then, the show may not work, since all the music is made up on the spot. It’s an extraordinary act of trust, especially since the lyrics can be so personal.

The extended piece performed here is called “Duality of Self.” It is in seven parts – five sections with an instrumental prelude and postlude – and it lasts about two hours. It is, in some ways, an attempt to do “Afternoon of Insensitivity” again, as the Rep plays keyboards while the other musicians set the atmosphere. It doesn’t quite work as well as that piece, mainly because the Rep has chosen a fairly cheesy “angelic” synth voice to play, but it is never less than interesting. Fraser sticks to percussion for most of the show, accenting but never propelling. Clutton’s upright bass slaps are vital for the foundation, as the Rep and Perera improvise on the higher end. Like “Afternoon,” it definitely feels like a single piece.

Lyrically this is a fever dream (perhaps literally, if the line “back to the sickbed” is to be believed) about self-awareness. The Rep posits himself as two people, and we hear only from one of them, who tries to use and then kill the other one. There’s a resurrection metaphor, some nods to the loneliness one feels after killing part of oneself, and a whole bunch of seemingly unconnected images that add to the ambience, and probably make sense to the Rep. It is definitely a single piece, a conceptual suite.

Does it work? Somewhat. I think this one would be more impressive if Manhattan Tuesday did not already exist. The players do a nice job, but this odd piece of work doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s wheelhouse. The Rep’s voice even seems more out of place than usual. Oddly enough, this one was professionally filmed and released as a concert movie. The Corwood DVD is a box set that includes the film and raw footage from every camera angle. This is not one of the Rep’s most successful endeavors, but you can study it closely if you wish. It’s truly emblematic of the high-wire-ness of the entire enterprise. You roll the dice, and so does everyone on stage.

Listen to the prelude.

#66. Chicago Wednesday (2010).

Ah, sweet home Chicago. This show was captured on September 20, 2006 at the Empty Bottle, a club I have visited several times. I’d lived in Chicagoland for about two years at that point, and if I’d known about Jandek then, I would have made the trip. The Rep’s Chicago cohorts this time were Tortoise drummer John McEntire and multi-faceted bassist Josh Abrams. (He was part of the street collective that grew into The Roots, and he played on Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O. album.) The Rep is back on electric guitar, and he sounds comfortable with the instrument and his co-conspirators.

The Rep leads these musicians through seven long songs, all of them topping 10 minutes. Given the pedigree on display here, it’s somewhat surprising that most of this is so plodding. McEntire sets a pretty straightforward beat behind each number, and Abrams sticks with the drums, leaving the Rep to play his jagged guitar hits. When the tempo explodes on “The Lost Ruse,” it’s a highlight. This is a looser, sparser guitar trio effort – it’s nothing like the racket the Youngs and Neilson band created in Camber Sands, for instance – and the consistent beats help drive these jams.

There’s a long-standing rumor that the Representative from Corwood may have spent some time in jail. There are hints of that on earlier songs like “The Police,” but here that theme is explicit. These are prison stories, as much as “Folsom Prison Blues” is. “Land of God” and “The Lost Ruse” are about fellow prisoners the singer met in jail, “Blue Plastic Mat” is about wishing he were out of his cell, “Let Me Go” is self-explanatory. Even seemingly disconnected songs can be worked into the theme. “Bad Times” could be about pleading with a judge, while “My Vow” could be a promise to love someone even from behind bars.

Has the Rep ever served time? We have no idea. This could just be a character he invented for this set of lyrics. It’s intriguing, though. Chicago Wednesday is a guitar trio record that never really catches fire, staying within the same parameters for an hour and a half. But it’s a treat to hear players like McEntire and Abrams on a Jandek album, as they try to figure out how to work their playing styles into what the Rep does.

Listen to the entire show.

#67. Where Do You Go From Here (2011).

I’ve mentioned before that part of the thrill of following Jandek is not knowing what is coming next. The live albums siphon some of that thrill away, since (to this point, in 2011) they’d been coming out in the order that the Rep performed them. But the studio albums are always a complete mystery. Still, there was no indication beforehand that Where Do You Go From Here would not be yet another in a long line of single-instrument solo albums.

So when it turned out to be a full-blooded collaborative suite, with multiple instruments and fascinating arrangements, it was actually shocking. My first play-through of this album found my jaw on the floor for most of it. There are no song titles, just twelve parts ranging in length from 1:33 to 14:19. There’s piano, percussion, flute, bass, electric guitar, harmonica. Basically a plethora of Jandekian instruments, either played live by an ensemble or overdubbed. It’s atmospheric and jazzy, and features two voices, the Rep and someone who is not the Rep. (While the other musicians are not credited, it’s widely rumored that this album was made with the original Jandek trio of Richard Youngs and Alex Neilson. The second voice, many say, belongs to Youngs.)

The infrequent lyrics are sparse and simple, based around the title phrase and the exhortation “make up your mind.” But this record doesn’t sound indecisive or tentative. It sounds like a bold step forward, the first collaborative Jandek studio album since New Town in 1998. The future, he seems to be saying, is other people, and that’s a phenomenal message for a Jandek album. There are so many little highlights here, especially the extended jam that ends the proceedings, but the real delight of this album is the way it points forward to a stranger and more unpredictable future.

Listen to “Part Four.”

#68. Seattle Friday (2011).

It’s the return of the mighty Portland Thursday band. Yes, the exact same lineup – drummer Emil Amos, bassist Sam Coomes and vocalists Liz Harris and Jessica Dennison – joined the Rep at On the Boards in Seattle on October 27, 2006 for this two-hour electric guitar festival. The Rep’s guitar tone is a lot more normal this time, but otherwise this is of the same quality as the Portland show, with Amos and Coomes providing a perfect foundation for the Corwood representative’s melancholy, menacing flights of fancy. (Seriously, the bass line on “Queen Anne Avenue” is worth the price of this one by itself.)

It is interesting how different musicians can bring out different sides of the Rep. Much of this isn’t appreciably different from the tempo and feel of Chicago Wednesday, but the sheer force of Amos and Coomes seems to inspire the Rep. His playing is otherworldly here, reverbed and random, but the bones are so strong that he can fly off and do whatever he wants, and it works. This is a dark-sounding show – the percussion that underpins “Image of the Lanterns” is creepy, and “Long Time Coming” feels like being in a smoky bar in another dimension.

One thing that sets this show apart from its Portland predecessor is that Harris and Dennison have a lot more to do. I have no idea which is which, but they handle lead vocals on half of these tracks. The explosive “Cathy Sue” is a highlight, Harris and Dennison harmonizing behind the din, and the undisputed champion this go-round is the 20-minute “Yes Dear.” Over a barreling freight train of a bass line, Harris and Dennison take the lead, reducing the Rep to repeating the title phrase in response to their lines. It’s a genuinely good time, an absurd racket that grins and winks at you.

At this point there had been 18 Jandek shows, and 11 of them had featured the Rep on electric guitar. It’s remarkable how different most of them sound from one another. The tone of this one even differs significantly from Portland Thursday, featuring the same band. Seattle Friday is another winner, another gig I wish I’d seen. As of this writing, the Rep has never played with this group of musicians again, and that’s a shame.

Listen to “No One Around.”

#69. Indianapolis Saturday (2012).

The Rep begins 2012 with the show that closed out his 2006. Recorded on December 9, 2006 at the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indy, this show finds our Representative playing fretless electric guitar with an eclectic pickup band: Nathan Vollmar on drums, Lester Johnson on double bass, Liz Janes on violin and George Smith on flute and xylophone. They played for two and a quarter hours, a propulsive set driven by Vollmar’s straight-ahead drumming.

This is another ensemble that sounds like they rehearsed for longer than they did. “Goodbye My Love” feels worked out in advance, even though it’s being spun from the air as we hear it. Vollmar’s beat is relentless, the Rep confines himself to single notes, leaving room on the bottom end for Johnson’s bop-like foundation and on the top end for Janes and Smith to solo. It’s a Jandek classic, a pop song and a jam in one. “This Day” is a gallop, Vollmar setting the pace while the Rep and Smith color in the lines, and Janes taking the microphone. Her country-style vocals work so well with this backdrop (and they serve her well on her own solo records). “I don’t want to win or lose, I just want to be with you,” she sings, and it’s like Patsy Cline decided to join Jandek for a night. (Her vocals on closer “Timeless” are more unhinged, and they work well there too.)

This mix of instruments, playing this kind of racket, shouldn’t work as well as it does. But aside from Smith throwing in recognizable melodies on the flute (like “Carol of the Bells”), this whole thing coheres. This band is able to keep the energy up for nearly the whole set, and it’s impressive to hear. The Rep’s ability to adapt his style to the ensemble is endlessly interesting, too. This is a one-night band that should have continued on, because they found each other’s grooves really well.

Listen to “This Day.”

#70. Maze of the Phantom (2012).

This is the Rep’s first double-disc studio album, and before it shipped out, that’s all we knew about it. The title is evocative, the cover photo of a lake at dusk even more so. But until Maze of the Phantom arrived in our mailboxes, we had no idea what this would be. I could never have predicted what it is: a fully-formed extended instrumental suite with what sounds like a full complement of collaborators. It is like nothing else in the Jandek catalog, and I could never have imagined this coming from the same man who made Ready for the House.

Maze of the Phantom itself is about 87 minutes long, broken up into six parts. It features the Rep on keyboards with guitars, percussion, a harp, a stringed instrument (probably a cello) and wordless female vocals. These pieces are long, flowing and atmospheric. They are most certainly improvised, but everyone is on the same wavelength, aiming for the most haunting sounds they can conjure. The sound itself is beautifully clear, and the textures and nuances of this music come through. It is almost Jandek’s guide to meditation, but it’s just off-kilter enough to avoid a new-age tag.

The second disc includes an additional 24 minutes of rehearsals, but they may as well be parts seven and eight of the main piece. Nothing here sounds tentative, it’s all confidently laid to tape. But it is interesting to hear the early stages of this improvisation. I spent the whole of these 112 minutes marveling at the fact that this piece of music exists. It is only in the world because the Rep persevered beyond his lonely troubadour beginnings, stepped out on stage and began collaborating with like-minded musicians. It is as far from the de-tuned, broken blues of his first few albums as the planets are from each other. It’s such an impressively strange and improbable thing, by which I mean both this album and the Rep’s entire career. And the surprises keep coming.

Listen to “Maze of the Phantom Part One.”

#71. Atlanta Saturday (2012).

Pressing play on Atlanta Saturday was just as surprising and fascinating. This show was recorded at the Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia on February 17, 2007, and it saw the Rep climb back behind the piano. But it’s the accompanying instruments that truly make this one special. Seth Coon’s bass clarinet and Ana Balka’s violin give the impression of listening to a small chamber orchestra, while Kelly Shane’s percussion is sometimes overpowering, but always dramatic and interesting. It is improvised chamber music according to Jandek, and again unlike anything in his catalog to date.

To be fair, the Rep’s part of this is fairly familiar by now. The extended piece this ensemble plays is called “Outcast of Civilization,” and the Rep plays and sings it in much the way he did “The Cell” and “The Places You Left Me.” The piece is in eight long parts, with an instrumental prelude, and is another deep-dive examination of loneliness and its effect on the psyche. The first line is “I don’t want to spoil the party because I’m having fun,” but it isn’t long before he is describing himself as “broken and shattered in the night.” The title phrase, in part five, is followed by what might be the best self-description the Rep has written: “One who couldn’t conform even to non-conformity.”

Even with the dark lyrics, this is one of the most pleasant and lovely Jandek albums ever. The bass clarinet and the violin work extremely well together, spinning colors in the air, and the whole thing has such texture and gracefulness. Lyrically he still sounds like the guy who made Six and Six, but musically this could not be more different. The journey from there to here seems impossible, but here we are.

Listen to “Outcast of Civilization Part Seven.”

#72. Richmond Sunday (2012).

We’ve had Jandek-style renditions of new age music and orchestral chamber music, and now we get Jandek doing jazz. And it’s delightful. The twenty-first Jandek show was performed on March 11, 2007 at the Firehouse Theater in Richmond, Virginia, and the local pickup band includes bassist Curtis Fye and drummer Brian Jones, a professor of jazz drumming at the College of William and Mary. But the player who stands out the most here is saxophonist J.C. Kuhl, who is also a professor of jazz at Virginia Commonwealth University. This is a pedigreed band, and they sound like it.

What we get here is six long songs over two hours, the Rep on electric guitar trying to test the theory about wrong notes in jazz while his accomplished trio plays smoky, dark grooves behind him. It all works perfectly, even the Rep’s playing – his tone is sinister, and he sticks to single notes on the smokier songs – and the atmosphere is undeniable. The first two songs stretch to 25 and 28 minutes respectively, and these jams are something else. Jones’s drumming is complex yet in the pocket, Fye stays in lockstep with the drums beautifully, and Kuhl is a wonder, soloing non-stop for hours. The Rep is in his own dimension as always, and the other players seem to ignore him more than huddling around him, but if you’re used to what he does, it still works. I’m especially pleased with “What She On,” with its heavy, manic playing from all corners.

Again, the journey to here, where the Rep can assemble a trio of accomplished jazz players and put his own stamp on the form, has been a remarkable one. For the live albums, it’s been a linear one too – we have been treated to every concert (except the one that was poorly recorded) since 2004 in order. That stops here, for a little while, so it’s worth pausing to reflect on how strange it is that Jandek live albums exist at all, and that they’ve been so diverse and interesting. They don’t all work as well as this one does, but the fact that the Rep keeps pushing himself like this is admirable, and the music is always fascinating.

Listen to “Standing There.”

#73. The Song of Morgan (2013).

I’m part of a Jandek group on Facebook and a Jandek mailing list, to stay connected with the few other souls who appreciate what the Rep does. In my short time as part of these communities, I’ve only seen a couple full-on Jandek events, moves the Rep makes that light up the message boards and get people talking. The Song of Morgan’s release in 2013 was one of them. This one actually got folks outside of Jandek communities talking too, so odd was the fact of its existence.

For a while, all we knew about The Song of Morgan was that it was a nine-CD box set. But that was enough to get excited. Nine CDs! Recorded in the studio! What could this be? I will say there was only a slight deflation in that excitement when the facts came out: this is nine solo piano improvisations, with no vocals. Each disc contains a nocturne, numbered one through nine, and each nocturne finds the Rep behind a well-tuned piano, messing about for an hour.

The Rep’s playing here is similar to what we heard on “The Places You Left Me” and “Sleeping in the Dawn.” It has an amateur, exploratory quality to it. You would never mistake this for Chick Corea. But you might mistake it for Erik Satie. It’s very pleasant background music, but also has enough movement and dynamism to it that if you want to pay attention, you can. There’s a lot of this music here, but there’s nothing more Jandekian than plugging away at something for far longer than most people would stick with it.

I rarely listen to The Song of Morgan, but on those occasions when I pull out a nocturne and immerse myself in it, I find it satisfying. On one level, the Rep doesn’t quite know what he’s doing here (and as a piano player I feel OK saying that). But on another, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and how to make his skill set work for him. While this sounds nothing like what people would expect from Jandek, in a lot of ways it’s the most Jandek album ever. It’s one man alone, playing one instrument like no one else for nine hours. That’s so Jandek.

Listen to Nocturnes Four through Six.

#74. Athens Saturday (2013).

Athens Saturday begins a long run of Jandek live albums released in seemingly random order. This year the Rep got back to issuing the shows chronologically, picking up where he left off with Richmond Sunday. But for the next several years we will get whatever concerts the Rep most wants us to hear, right then. It’s interesting to try to suss out his rationale for the order of these next (holy hell) 21 live records, and of course we will never know. But I can certainly imagine him not wanting to wait years to put out this Athens show, because it’s phenomenal.

Recorded on July 28, 2012 at the Orange Twin Conservation Community, this show’s guest star was Bradford Cox, guitar player and mastermind of the band Deerhunter. The Rep is on piano and keys, and Cox is on guitar (of course), creating magical soundscapes. They are joined by drummer Eric Harris, bass clarinetist and violinist John Fernandes, and cellist Heather McIntosh. And together they create a glorious, dense, 100-minute drone piece called “Waiting to Die.”

As you can tell by the title, this is one of the bleakest pieces in the Jandek catalog. The lyrics are structured like a conversation between someone with deep depression and his sunnier friend, trying to get him out into the world. The first line is “I don’t know what to do except die,” and it unfolds from there, the Rep refusing every exhortation to live life, sinking further into darkness. The final stanza, after more than an hour and a half of pain, is one of the most accurate depictions of numb depression I have ever heard. It’s utterly remarkable.

And the music and the Rep’s delivery are in perfect synch. This piece doesn’t really move. It stays in one place, like the depressed person it is describing, because any real forward momentum would feel like life. This feels like nothing. This feels like five people working very hard to make an extended piece of music that feels like nothing. It’s difficult to describe, but it is one of the most successful pieces about sinking into despair that I have encountered.

This is very Jandekian, to have a player of the caliber of Bradford Cox and use him to make this. But it’s very clear that Cox was on board, invested. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait for people to hear this either. It’s a perfect example of how far the Rep has stretched the definition of Jandek, and it remains one of the most effective pieces of music in his catalog.

Listen to “Waiting to Die Part One.”
Listen to “Waiting to Die Part Two.”

#75. Houston Saturday (2014).

All that said, I’m surprised this one was next. I can certainly see one reason for releasing it: the bass player for this gig was the legendary Mike Watt, of the Minutemen. He joined the Rep and Dallas noise drummer Stefan Gonzalez for this show as part of the Free Press Summer Fest on June 1, 2013, the Rep naturally playing electric guitar. But in comparison with what we’ve received before, it’s hard to qualify this one as even a full Jandek show, never mind a great one.

This trio only played one piece of music, a 35-minute jam that has been saddled with a confusing title. It is called “Excited,” but is listed on the CD cover as the only part of a larger piece called “I Know I’m Alive.” Are there other parts to this suite that we haven’t heard? No idea. Our only clue is this weird, not quite successful session, which finds the Rep shouting “I’m so excited!’ over absolute chaos. Mike Watt is a great get – and this is his second Jandek show – but this largely sounds like what it is: three players who don’t know what they’re supposed to do next.

The Rep’s work here is all over the place, even more than usual. He seems determined to zig instead of zag, throwing off his bandmates. Gonzalez doesn’t lay down a solid foundation, jumping from one rhythmic idea to the next, which leaves Watt stranded. He sounds lost here, unsure how to contribute. Things do coalesce a little more near the end, but then it’s over. A couple more songs might have brought these players into orbit around each other, but this is the only one we have.

So why put this out, especially out of sequence? It certainly seems like part of the Corwood aesthetic that failures are as interesting as successes. It is certainly in the bottom tier of Jandek live releases for me, and a strange, permanent testament to the perils of unrehearsed, improvised music, even with brilliant musicians in tow.

This is also a good opportunity to talk about the absolutely revelatory Jandek documentary, I Know You Well, which had been filmed the year before. In what surely must be the final nail in the outsider-recluse theory of Jandek, this film brings you behind the scenes of a concert in Minneapolis on Halloween 2013, showing the rehearsal process in detail. But my favorite part of the film is a conversation between the Rep and bass player Craig Matarrese about the show that became Houston Saturday. It’s fascinating to hear the Rep talk about how it felt on stage to perform this, how it seemed like everything was falling apart until near the end. And it’s also interesting to hear him say he ended up liking this jam when he listened back.

I Know You Well is an essential watch for anyone interested in the music the Rep makes. It contains an extraordinary amount of face-to-face interaction with him, and reveals him to be a thoughtful, considered artist. It will dash all your theories and provide you with something more interesting and substantial to replace them. Watch it online here.

Watch the entire Houston show.

#76. Ghost Passing (2014).

 When Ghost Passing, the second multi-disc studio box set in a row, was announced, people were worried that it would be another Song of Morgan, six more hours of piano improvisation. Thankfully, it’s a lot more interesting than that. Though structurally similar – this box includes six hour-long pieces numbered Fantasy One through Six – this one adds a couple extra dimensions that make it one of the most fascinating of the Rep’s recent output. I rarely listen to The Song of Morgan, but I find myself gravitating toward Ghost Passingmore often than I can explain.

Each of these six pieces is a collaboration between the Rep on piano and another musician on theremin. (It is widely speculated that this other musician is Sheila Smith, and I will talk more about her in a moment.) The piano improvisations are similar to what we’ve heard from the Rep, but the theremin is an extraordinary addition. It sounds like the title, like a ghost passing through, and it gives this entire project a spectral, unearthly feel. It’s not unpleasant, necessarily, but this is not the easy listening background music of Morgan. It’s far stranger than that. The theremin was clearly recorded alongside the piano, as the two musicians adapt and react to each other. It’s one of the weirdest extended musical conversations I own.

And then, midway through “Fantasy Five,” the Rep starts speaking. After four and a half hours of the same sound, out of nowhere, he spins a narrative in a low, spoken voice. It works remarkably well, the menacing atmosphere underpinning his voice like dark clouds. And after he’s done, we go back to another hour and change of piano and theremin. Why is this here? To make sure we are paying attention? Ghost Passing is so effective in wrapping you in its own sonic world, and it all feels like prelude and postlude to the vocal section.

This is a remarkable thing, unlike any other music I own. It will also be the last Jandek studio album for five years, as the Rep will focus from here on more recent live documents. Seventeen of them in a row, in fact. For a while, this felt like it might be the final Jandek studio record, and it would have been quite a way to bow out.

No tracks available online.

#77. Houston Saturday 2011 (2014).

The Rep may have left his solo acoustic style behind in the studio, but occasionally he does strap on the six-string alone on stage. This is one such occasion, and since the Rep is now putting these shows out in no order except his preferred one, it appears he likes this one. It’s a hometown show, and this run of 17 back-to-back live albums will focus on his various Houston performances – more than half of his Houston shows have now found their way to CD and DVD.

This one was performed at the Menil Collection Museum on December 17, 2011. The Rep’s guitar is particularly dissonant on this set of ten pieces, but the Rep himself sounds relaxed. He’s strumming, not assaulting the guitar, and his vocals are largely restrained. It’s a set of romantic yearnings, the Rep alternately pleading with someone to stay with him or lamenting that someone has left. “Johnny Dupree” is a rare story-song spinning the tale of a guy who may just be a dangerous stalker. Closing number “How I Know You” finds the Rep returning to his longest-standing relationship: the one he has with the blues. “I’m in a sea of torment, more than I’ve ever been, oh blues, blues, blues…”

In other words, it is trademark solo Jandek. Or it would be, if not for the first track, a spoken word piece called “The Door and the Red Tree.” Hearing the Rep open this performance by saying “I’d like to tell you a story” is immediately fascinating, and the story itself is full of metaphors for fear and hope. Aside from this, though, Houston Saturday 2011 is like hearing one of the latter-period studio albums come to life. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Jandek live material is often much more interesting than this.

Listen to “The Door and the Red Tree.”

#78. St. Louis Friday (2015).

Can we just marvel at the cover of this one for a moment? It’s a young Corwood Representative in pinstripe slacks photoshopped against a solid blue background, and he’s holding a sign that reads “Stamp out reality.” This was a Vietnam-era protest slogan, so apparently our Rep was a full-on hippie in his younger days, and a politically active one too. It’s endlessly interesting to try to piece together this man’s life from the context of these album cover shots, especially since they’re all out of order, not at all representing a clear timeline.

This show, recorded at the Billiken Club in St. Louis on March 21, 2014, marks the first confirmed appearance of Houston singer and performance artist Sheila Smith on a Jandek album. (I would bet money that is her playing the theremin on Ghost Passing, but there’s no proof of that.) Since then, she’s become a vitally important part of the Jandek story. She’d appeared on stage with the Rep a couple times in the past, and then joined the ensemble for a residency at Café Oto in London in February of 2014. This gig was performed about a month later, and Smith has been a constant part of the Jandek ensemble since then, playing in all 28 Jandek shows between 2014 and 2019.

She’s an extraordinary, constantly-moving presence on stage, with a punky, sardonic speak-singing vocal style, and she brings an element of fun to the proceedings that has only been there sporadically before. It’s become clear that Smith is the Rep’s partner in life, not just on stage, and it’s fun to imagine that they are singing songs to each other. Are they? I have no idea. But the Sheila Smith era has been the most fun to speculate about since the days of Nancy.

Most important to these reviews is that Smith is a natural born performer. She’s about as good at the instruments she plays as the Rep is, traditionally speaking, but she has such a flair about her that everything she does fits well into the Jandek vibe. This St. Louis show is something of a grab bag – the pickup band includes area musicians Matty Coonfield and Joseph Hess, and throughout the show the foursome trades off instruments, each playing guitar, bass, drums and keys at different times.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite cohere as a concert as much as it probably could have. The Rep opens things up alone, playing a surprisingly conventionally tuned guitar on “Wasted Body” and “The Capsized Boat.” Smith joins hm, playing percussion on a new version of “Fishing Blues,” which first appeared on Graven Image in 1994. When the band shows up, the songs get longer, but they also get more erratic. The Rep’s voice is tortured on “Above it All,” with random-sounding accompaniment, but things definitely pick up on the guitar-heavy “Shadow Life.” That one and “Where Were You Born” benefit from Smith’s vocals, especially the latter, in which she pretends to be ultra-clingy: “What’s your name? Where were you born? Let’s get married!”

It goes on like this, often sounding like a group of people stumbling around in the dark. Which is the risk with any Jandek show, really. Highlights include Smith’s funny vocals on the minimal “The Times I Had to Wear Tuxedos” and the inspired back-and-forth between the Rep and Hess on “Got My Dog.” Lowlights include the lengthy “Lucky Stars” and the petering-out closer “Weekends.” This isn’t the most successful Jandek show, but as an introduction to the Sheila Smith era, it’s an interesting one.

Watch “Where Were You Born.”

#79. Brussels Saturday (2015).

Now this one, on the other hand, is remarkably successful. Recorded about a month after St. Louis Friday, on April 19, 2014, this 75-minute performance shows how good the Smith and Smith era of Jandek can (and will) be. This one was captured at the Ancienne Belgique and features just one additional performer, Annelies Van Dinter, on multiple instruments. This is the first and so far only Jandek live release to sport a photo from the performance itself on the cover, and you can see Sheila Smith in full stage mode, dancing and bringing life to the show.

This one was clearly conceived of as a whole piece, though it is five separate songs. The performance builds up from a minimal start, slowly growing towards a crescendo, then collapsing back for the finale. It is satisfying as a listening experience, in a way that some of these live documents are not. Opener “In My Mind” is a showcase for Van Dinter, who sings accompanied by piano, scratchy bass and drums. This show is similar to the St. Louis one in that the three performers trade instruments and lead vocals throughout.

The centerpiece here is the 37-minute “Friday Morning,” which mostly stays in a more reserved pocket. The Rep sings this one over his unmistakable piano playing, and about 14 minutes in the trio finds a bass-driven groove to fall into. Sheila sings the guitar-driven “Phantom Touches,” and then brings her sense of humor to the driving “Maybe You’ve Died,” playing a neurotic girlfriend. “I sent you a text, and you didn’t immediately respond, what if you’ve died? I thought you were dead.” It’s one of the funniest Jandek songs since “You Painted Your Teeth,” and the glow of it remains even as the Rep moans his way through the quieter final song, “The Blue Sky.”

This one is compact – it’s a single disc, and the show lasts about 75 minutes – and the smaller scope works in its favor. Brussels Saturday is an enjoyable document of a performance in which everything seemed to click. Sheila Smith continues to be a nice foil for the Rep, bringing him out of his on-stage shell and inspiring some of the most lively music under the Jandek banner. She’ll be a consistent element for the next long set of live albums, and will remain a welcome one.

Listen to “Friday Morning.”

#80. Houston Thursday (2015).

With this release we flash back in time to Sheila Smith’s second-ever performance in a Jandek show. This one happened at Mango’s in Houston on July 12, 2012, and it’s commonly referred to as the punk show. Smith is the featured vocalist with the Rep on guitar, Kevin Bogart (from the Boston area) on bass and Justino Saladino (from Houston) on drums. The result is very much the Jandek equivalent of the Minutemen, as the band stomped their way through 15 short songs (and then one extended finale) in less than an hour.

The rawness of the whole affair is driven by Smith, who shouts extemporaneous lyrics like she’s in Bikini Kill. Her contributions are funny and lively. On “Emergency” she shouts “You should learn how to ride a bike,” on “Asked for a Refund” she demands her money back from the people who “cut me open and sewed me back up,” and on “Galveston” she explains, emphatically, that she doesn’t believe in renter’s insurance. I’m pretty sure the whole of “Dallas Bitches” was inspired by a heckler in the audience. “We’re not in Dallas, we’re not listening to Free Bird!”

The music here is raw and ragged, the rhythm section finding grooves and disposing of them just as quickly as the Rep makes his inimitable noise. The final song, “Glass Boxes,” finds Smith spinning a parable about a trip to the art fair over ten expansive, slow-crawl minutes, and her delivery suits this style perfectly. As an added treat, Corwood has included 17 minutes from the rehearsal, and while they’re the same as the show, they’re a little looser, with Smith making up lyrics about rehearsing. Houston Thursday is a lot of fun, and an interesting glimpse at Smith’s early contributions to Jandek. We’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the next set of reviews.

Listen to “Glass Boxes.”

Next week we wrap this all up with a look at albums 81 to 101 (and maybe 102). Breathe a sigh of relief, we are almost done.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jandek 101
Part Three: Get Real Wild

#41. Glasgow Sunday (2005).

Every music fan has a time travel concert wish list. I certainly have one. It’s a detailed selection of historic gigs I would visit if I had a time machine, shows I wish I had either been alive for or aware of at the time they happened. You know, Hendrix at Woodstock-level events. Shows that, even while they were happening, people could tell they were witnessing something monumental. Now, granted, my list includes a lot of pretty obscure bands, but there’s no doubt that Jandek performing live for the first time on October 17, 2004 would be there.

Alas, it would be another few years before I’d even hear of Jandek, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for those in the small-ish crowd at the Arches in Glasgow, Scotland, who were aware of the Rep and his work. The first ever Jandek show took place as an unannounced part of the Instal Festival, an experimental music showcase then in its fourth year. The Rep took the stage with two British musicians who would go on to be cornerstones of his live act for the next two years, drummer Alex Neilson and bassist Richard Youngs, and slammed through an eight-song, 60-minute set of entirely new material.

I’m honestly not sure how I would have felt if I’d been in the room at the time. I don’t know that I would have been able to pay much attention to the music, given the astronomical odds against what I was seeing. After 26 years of mystery, here was the Rep himself, playing electric guitar and letting loose his tortured moan. Impossibly thin, older than any picture we had seen, dressed in black and wearing a hat, refusing to even acknowledge the audience. In true Jandek fashion, Corwood did not confirm that a Jandek show had taken place until six months later, when the CD of the performance was released.

I cannot imagine how exciting this must have been for people in the know. It’s a little like being at a random book fair and seeing Thomas Pynchon show up and read some new work. Coming to it later, Glasgow Sunday is a fascinating document. It is simultaneously pure Jandek and unlike any Jandek recording before it. This music is entirely improvised, save for the lyrics. The Rep plays electric, but in a style reminiscent of Telegraph Melts, not the more recent solo efforts. He conjures up a mighty racket, attacking the instrument like a dog that has been let off of a chain.

Neilson and Youngs are given the unenviable task of being the first musicians to try to navigate a Jandek live performance. The Rep’s playing isn’t beholden to time or tempo, and as a rhythm section they need to provide a base for the cacophony coming from his amp. They do this masterfully, as if they’d been playing with the Rep for years. Neilson’s drumming is not nearly the barbaric thrashing heard on the early electric records – it’s almost jazz-influenced, while being as propulsive as it needs to be. Youngs plays the only recognizable melodic figures here, and his lines pop up like bubbles beneath the din.

Even within this framework, the songs manage to be diverse and interesting. Opener “Not Even Water” is a ten-minute rush of sound, the Rep screaming that “the stars are sinking” and he doesn’t know what to do. These songs are largely about depression, isolation and the blues, as heard on both “Don’t Want to Be” and “Blue Blue World.” The latter of those numbers is slower, more drawn-out, like second track “Where I Stay,” and both feature Neilson driving the tone with his restrained yet complex playing.

The highlight, though, is “Real Wild,” an absolutely signature Jandek moment. There’s a bit about halfway through when the Rep, who up until now has been singing about staying home and doing laundry, makes this announcement: “I made the decision to get real wild.” The audience goes absolutely nuts at this, and it’s easy to understand why. This show was, to the amazement of many, released on DVD about a year later, and seeing that moment – looking at the Rep’s face as his decision to play live was validated – is priceless.

I cannot overstate how much of a tectonic shift this album represents. The reception to it, I’m sure, kept the Rep going on this path – he’d perform an astounding 11 times in 2005. From here on out, the live music would slowly overtake the studio output, and would be where the Rep’s artistic restlessness was fully explored. The studio albums had already started to sound the same by this point, but the live records would remain endlessly inventive. Glasgow Sunday is the start of Jandek’s second act, which is still going to this day. It’s also a pretty terrific hour of noise.

As a final note, two traditions begin here. First, the convention of naming the live albums after the city they were recorded in and the day of the week on which they happened, and second, the practice (mostly still followed) of adorning the covers with photos of landmarks that are nowhere near the locations in the album titles.

Listen to the entire album.
Watch “Real Wild.”

#42. Raining Down Diamonds (2005).

After the excitement of the live album, it’s a little disheartening to return to the same studio path we have been on since I Threw You Away. Raining Down Diamonds is the tenth of these single-instrument solo records, and the third to be performed on bass. While it’s still novel to hear the Rep in this setting, this sounds very much like the other two, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

What’s interesting about this one? The Rep seems to use the bass more to set a foundation here, sticking to a few root notes and letting that voice out over them. In short, he’s playing it more like a bass than like a guitar here, keeping the rumble going without jumping to the higher notes as much. The lyrics are about loneliness, except for “You Ancient,” which seems to be about the gods of food, and “New Rendezvous,” an encouraging message straight out of a self-help book: “So be thankful for all that you’ve got, and you’ll get much more than you had…” There’s a new version of the hymn-like “Take My Will,” originally on Glad to Get Away, and it sounds nothing like the original take.

There isn’t anything wrong with Raining Down Diamonds, per se. It just follows the pattern of the recent solo releases, and it was issued in the wake of the most exciting Jandek album… well, probably ever. It is suitably creepy and intimate, and finds him refining his bass style – he’d make the fretless bass part of his live repertoire before long. But it isn’t anything special, and in the post-live era, it needs to be special to stand out.

Listen to the new “Take My Will.”

#43. Khartoum (2005).

I am not sure how the Rep did it, but his acoustic guitar playing on Khartoum feels even harsher and more brittle than usual. The physical sound reminds me of a shower of glass needles, and when the Rep gets aggressive here, that sound is almost confrontational. That’s the main selling point of this one, which finds the Rep in familiar territory again, strumming dissonantly tuned strings with no rhythm and extending his moaning vocal notes over them like spirits floating over a foggy field.

Khartoum is the capital of Sudan, and the title track here offers no hints as to why the Rep bestowed that moniker upon it. It’s a song about being left behind, and most of Khartoum follows suit. The whole thing feels like a breakup album, with the Rep lamenting his loss and talking about self-harm. He’s “at the mercy of (his) brain,” he’s “stuck in a chair,” he tears himself to pieces. Throughout he sings about wanting to go to the spirit world, and the stutter-strummed “I Shot Myself,” a highlight, is about metaphorical suicide.

So yeah, it’s dark. The pitch-blackness, the energy of the playing and the almost vicious sound of the thing makes Khartoum one of the more interesting and engaging of these single-instrument records. The cover photo, of the Rep with a beard in a religious headdress, also marks this one as different. Perhaps not different enough, given that it is the eleventh of these albums, but there is still life in this phase of Jandek, and Khartoum finds it.

Listen to “I Shot Myself.”

#44. Khartoum Variations (2006).

This is exactly what it sounds like: an alternate version of the Khartoum album. This is the first time the Rep has released a completely different take on the same set of lyrics, and I have to admit, it’s a real surprise. It raises so many questions for me about the Rep’s process. Since the music is fully improvised, I have always assumed that whatever comes out on the first take is what we hear. But Khartoum Variations makes me question that assumption, and I find myself wondering if alternate takes exist of other Jandek albums as well. And if so, why are we hearing this one, and not the others?

The prevailing theory is that Khartoum Variations was the Rep’s first try at performing these lyrics, and that makes some sense to my ears. The sound is flatter, the performance less energetic. Listen to this version of “I Shot Myself.” On Khartoum proper, that song is a fiery explosion of wrist-breaking aggression, and here it’s laconic, almost sleepy. It’s not a bad take, and if the Khartoum version did not exist, I’d probably not have given this one a second thought. It fits right in with the Rep’s pre-Khartoum acoustic style. But I can definitely imagine the Rep listening back to this, feeling a little unsatisfied with it, and making the changes that led to the more interesting main album.

So why are we hearing these takes, then? I have no idea. The notion that these versions came first is just a theory as well. It’s a mystery why these two approaches to these same sentiments sit side by side, and why “Fork in the Road,” the closing track on Khartoum, does not appear here. (Maybe it was written between the two sessions?) The differences between the albums may not even be apparent to people who are not immersed in the Jandek sound. For those of us who are, these two mirror images comprise one of our more interesting peeks at the method behind this madness.

Listen to “Move From the Mountain” from Khartoum.
Listen to “Move From the Mountain” from Khartoum Variations.

#45. Newcastle Sunday (2006).

While the Rep was working out new approaches to take in the studio, the stage became his most exciting creative outlet. By the time Newcastle Sunday was released, there had been a dozen Jandek shows, and the diversity on display was remarkable. I don’t want to make it sound like the studio albums had become tedious, even though there’s some truth to that. But one listen to Newcastle Sundaywill confirm that the live recordings had quickly become the ones to wait for.

This album documents the second ever Jandek show, recorded at the Sage in Gateshead on May 22, 2005. It features the same lineup that played the first ever Jandek show: the Rep on electric guitar with Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums. If you’re expecting the same unholy racket, well, you’ll get it, but there are a couple differences this time. First, this concert ran close to 90 minutes, necessitating the first Jandek double-CD release. (A whole new pricing category on the typewritten discography page!) That extra length gives the trio time and space to stretch out, and it’s evident.

Second, the Rep uses a swirly, semi-clean guitar tone for the whole show, giving this a very different feel from the more abrasive Glasgow outing. It’s not a true comparison, but the tone reminds me of the Cure, and hearing the same nimble bass and percussion underneath the freeform web the Rep spins here is fascinating. Themes of depression, leaving and being left abound, as well as a song about facing the death penalty (“Locked Up”), but in contrast to the studio recordings, the Rep sounds so alive here, so energized. His vocals are wild, moaning and stretching into falsetto, and it’s clear that performing with these musicians invigorates him.

As historic as the first show is, this one is more of a showcase for the intense din that the O.G. Jandek trio creates. It’s long, it’s chaotic, sometimes it’s pure noise. But it’s pulsing with life. Even when things slow down for the expansive closer “Shadow of the Clouds,” there’s an energy to this that the Rep will try and not quite succeed to capture in the studio. Glasgow Sunday could have been an anomaly, but Newcastle Sunday makes it clear that live Jandek is the new heart of Jandek.

A quick note: Gateshead is not Newcastle, of course. But the castle on the cover is in Kent, which is neither place, so I guess it works in a weird way.

Listen to “Locked Up.”

#46. What Else Does the Time Mean (2006).

The Rep is on the front cover of this one with an axe. Appropriately enough, it’s back to the electric guitar here for an album that sounds like the sonic sequel to The End of it All. There’s a lot of single-string playing, a lot of rhythmless picking and strumming, a lot of low-moan vocals and a lot of lyrics about loneliness. The opening 16-minute “My Own Way” is the album in miniature, but there are seven additional songs, and the whole thing adds up to an hour.

The Rep still plays the electric guitar like no one else, and if this were your first Jandek album, you’d be as interested in just what on earth is happening here as I was when I first heard this playing and singing style. It’s still remarkable in its uniqueness, but this is the fourth solo electric guitar album and the 13th in this run of single-instrument solo records, and they’re becoming easier to predict. There are six more of these albums to go, and while that seems like a lot, it also at the time felt like this type of output could go on infinitely.

It’s a strange analogy, but Jandek albums were starting to feel like AC/DC albums, repeating the same methods of music-making. What Else Does the Time Mean clearly is just as intimate and personal as the Rep has ever been, but on a pure musical level the live albums were offering so much more by this point. This is a fine example of late-period Jandek in the studio, but with the Jandek concert experience gaining steam, it’s a hard one to remember.

Listen to “Walls Down.”

#47. Glasgow Monday (2006).

And this is a perfect case in point. How can anyone concentrate on the samey-sounding studio records when something like Glasgow Monday exists? Recorded at the Center for Contemporary Arts on May 23, 2005 – one day after Newcastle Sunday – this show found the Rep playing piano on stage for the first time. Accompanied again by Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on percussion, the entire 90-minute show is devoted to an extended piece called “The Cell.”

These longer pieces, subdivided into parts, would become more common, but this is the first one, and there’s an element of excitement there. The Rep intends us to listen to this as a single work, and the lyrics bear that out. An epic poem of self-analysis, the different movements of “The Cell” mostly all begin with the same question: “What do I have?” The answers are unclear at the beginning: some ability to pay the bills, an insight from the past, a ship without a crew. The Rep talks himself out of hope each time. In part three, he dreams of dying, but fears that life will just start again for him. In part five, he regrets never choosing connections that would lead to grief: “I took the other road, the one that left me sullen here.”

The music is slow and deliberate. The Rep has some utility on the piano – he stays in key, likely by avoiding sharps and flats – and keeps his fingers moving. No one would ever mistake him for a concert pianist, but his rudimentary melodies do set a mood effectively. Youngs mostly plays bowed double bass, providing a foundation and staying out of the way, and Neilson is there for accents and flourishes. The focus is squarely on the Rep, and he sings “The Cell” in a restrained, breathy way that fits the sparse instrumentation. It’s like nothing the Rep has ever given us, an entirely new side to Jandek, and it’s captivating.

The ending of “The Cell” is uncharacteristic as well. After giving himself no reason to believe for more than an hour, the ninth part concludes with hope. “In the cell I have possibilities,” he sings. “I’ll lay down for weeks, whatever it takes, it’s not concluded.” It’s the most beautiful moment in the Jandek catalog thus far. I’ve still never heard anything else quite like Glasgow Monday. It must have been quite an experience to see it live. It also affirms the Rep’s commitment to pushing himself artistically – it’s only his third ever show, and he’s doing this. The stage is where the Rep’s artistic restlessness will be fully expressed, and this is the first real indication of how restless he will be.

Listen to “The Cell: Prelude.”

#48. Austin Sunday (2006).

Jandek played America for the first time on August 28, 2005, choosing the Scottish Rite Theatre in Austin, Texas as the site. It’s interesting to me that the Rep is from Houston, but wouldn’t play a Jandek show there until 2009. Austin, however, would be a frequent stop in these early days. Joining the Rep for this first Austin performance were two drummers, Nick Hennies and Chris Cogburn, and bassist Juan Garcia. It is here that the Rep develops what will become his signature collaborative practice: building an ad hoc band out of nearby musicians and rehearsing with them as little as possible.

If the idea is to put himself in different contexts and bring a new feel to each show, it works tremendously well here. The Rep plays electric guitar, but this 90-minute show sounds nothing at all like the Glasgow and Newcastle dates. Part of it is that the Rep doesn’t seem to share the same intuitive sense with these musicians as he does with Youngs and Neilson – they follow along behind him instead of driving things forward. That means that most of this music is slower and more reflective, the Rep moving at his own pace instead of responding to an active beat. On “The Police” he sets a more aggressive tone, but the smattering of percussion doesn’t turn it into a rock song.

What we get, then, is something new. It’s more tentative, more uncertain, and the push and pull between the Rep and his accompanists gives this thing a strange and appealing character. This works well with the lyrics, which are full of self-doubt, the Rep lamenting his own ugliness and comparing himself to a lonely dog. There are certainly times here, like on “Run Away,” when it seems like no one on stage quite knows what to do next, but that suits the character of this show. Even with all that, the funny “Wine You Devil” and the closing “Let Me Try Again” feel like successes. This one, more than many other Jandek shows, can sound like undirected noise to the uninitiated (and sometimes to the initiated, too). But it’s never less than fascinating.

Listen to “The Police.”

#49. The Ruins of Adventure (2006).

This is where I came in. When I discovered Jandek in early 2007, The Ruins of Adventure was the most current album. It holds a sentimental place for me for that reason, even though I don’t think too highly of it as a piece of work. It’s another bass-and-vocals studio album, and aside from an increased tendency to bend the strings, creating a rubbery feel to the foundation beneath his vocals, this one is very similar to the three previous bass-and-vocals studio albums. Heck, the cover is just a zoomed-in portion of the photo on the cover of What Else Does the Time Mean, as if the Rep couldn’t be bothered to come up with something new.

On its own, The Ruins of Adventure is interesting. The Rep plays the bass the way he would two years later in Ann Arbor, at the only Jandek concert I have attended. Which is to say, he plays bass like no one else ever has, randomly striking the strings and creating an uneasy, seasick setting for his voice. The lyrics find the Rep going through a familiar cycle, trying to open up and be with someone (“Completely Yours,” “Mysteries of Existence”) and ending up alone and depressed (the title track). There’s an element of anger to this one as well, as he lashes out at depression itself. The final lyrics: “I won’t give an inch to you, you rotten thing, I won’t fall in your hole.”

As I’ve said a few times, there’s nothing specifically wrong with these single-instrument studio albums. The Ruins of Adventure is just as compelling as Shadow of Leaves and Raining Down Diamonds. But it offers nothing that those two did not. Outside of Jandek Land, there isn’t anything at all like The Ruins of Adventure, and were you to pick it up on its own, it would take you on a journey all its own. Inside of Jandek Land, though, this is another in a long line of records that follow the same template, and they tend to blend together. The Rep again put all of himself into this, and like all of these solo studio albums, it’s worth closer attention. But despite its place in my personal Jandek history, I never seek this one out.

Listen to “Mysteries of Existence.”

#50. Manhattan Tuesday (2007).

This one, on the other hand, I have never stopped listening to. Manhattan Tuesday was the first Jandek album I picked up when it came out – my first “new” Jandek album – and the music here still bowls me over. If I were to compile a short list of favorite Jandek albums, this would be on it. I don’t even need to provide caveats with this one. It’s just fascinating music, by any definition.

Manhattan Tuesday documents the fifth-ever Jandek show, recorded at the Anthology Film Archives on September 6, 2005. It features the most expansive Jandek ensemble to date, including drummer Chris Corsano, double bassist Matt Heyner and guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. All of these players have solid histories and reputations within the free jazz and experimental music worlds, particularly Connors, who has worked with Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and John Fahey, among others. This is something of an all-star Jandek band, and the Rep used them to create a haunting work far outside his usual frame of reference.

The single extended piece here is called “Afternoon of Insensitivity,” and it lasts an hour and a half. The Rep plays keyboards here, set to a spectral organ sound, and his slow roaming across the keys fits in beautifully with the softer beat Corsano and Heyner lay down. Connors plays subtle yet massive atmospheres over this, and the effect is like driving through a windswept wasteland, or swimming through a thick ocean. It’s such an effective atmosphere that I don’t mind that it’s essentially the same for 90 minutes. I don’t want it to end.

The lyrics find the Rep not so much insensitive as insensate, forcing himself to breathe through his depression and lethargy. There’s such despair here, rendered in verse after verse and sung from a place of unbearable solitude. It’s ironic, of course, that one of the Rep’s loneliest and bleakest pieces about isolation has been realized through a pitch-perfect collaboration with others. Like “The Cell,” this one ends hopefully, with the Rep making connections again through the fog of his sadness. Even within music this chillingly dark, there is hope.

I have not really been able to say this about previous Jandek albums, but I unreservedly love Manhattan Tuesday. This one transcends curiosity and fascination for me and becomes just awe-inspiring. I enjoy watching the DVD of this one, too, but often I prefer to conjure my own mental images while it’s playing. Fifty albums in, the Rep has come up with something magical. And like all improvised music, it’s ephemeral – he’ll never quite do something like this again.

Watch “Afternoon of Insensitivity Part Three.”

#51. Brooklyn Wednesday (2007).

How do you follow up something as hypnotic as “Afternoon of Insensitivity”? If you are the Rep, you take the stage the very next night and play a mammoth rock show. Brooklyn Wednesday consists of two sets of music over two hours and 40 minutes, recorded at the Issue Project Room on September 7, 2005. The Rep plugged in his electric guitar again for this one, and brought drummer Chris Corsano and bassist Matt Heyner from the previous night’s show with him. The result is Corwood’s first box set, issued on four CDs in a slipcase. It’s a beautiful-looking thing, and the music inside is absolutely thunderous.

Where Corsano and Heyner laid back in Manhattan, creating a mood, here they create a racket. The first set is a mighty noise, driven by Corsano’s straightforward yet complex drumming. Together he and Heyner discover an interesting truism: the stronger the rhythm is, the more the Rep is able to absolutely freak out atop it – his aggressive strumming here is wild and all over the place, but the rhythm section grounds it. Highlights of this first set include “Obscure Physics,” in which the Rep declares he’s got the blues, and the closing “I Love You,” the most straightforwardly romantic song the Rep has given us. Hearing him repeat the title phrase over a slowed-down crawl is as surreal as any lyrical dream imagery in his catalog.

For the second set, the Rep trades in for a fretless electric guitar and Heyner switches to bowed double bass. The effect is something a little softer, a little more spaced out, a little stranger. It’s an effective change-up, as Corsano continues his blocky beats while the Rep fits in around them. “City Pounding Down” is a highlight of this style, with its relentless slow rhythm giving the Rep and Heyner all the foundation they need to fill the space. The 11-minute “Tequila Girl” just needs to be heard, the Rep declaring “we’re gonna have a party” and “be my tequila girl” over what can only be described as chaos.

Brooklyn Wednesday is a marathon, but further proof that the beating heart of the Jandek project now lies in these on-stage collaborations. It’s impressive that this was recorded only one day after Manhattan Tuesday, since the two shows bear no resemblance at all to one another. Together they show off just how impressive live Jandek can be. They also delineate the two sides of this project nicely. Manhattan Tuesday feels like eavesdropping on an intimate confession, while Brooklyn Wednesday feels like a show, a party to which everyone is invited.

Listen to the full album.

#52. The Myth of Blue Icicles (2008).

This one is particularly popular among Jandek fans, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Or rather, I’m not sure why this one garners such praise and not others that sound exactly like it. The Myth of Blue Icicles consists of four songs performed on acoustic guitar and vocals, and it’s over in 38 minutes. For an acoustic studio Jandek album, it is certainly not out of the box – the Rep’s playing and singing is in line with previous acoustic albums, his lyrics are about loneliness and a need for connection. The guitar sounds close to standard tuning this time, but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish this one from Khartoum Variations.

I specifically said Variations because the aggression and brittle sound of Khartoum is absent here. This is a slow dirge of an album, the Rep’s long, low vocals stretching out over sparse playing. He announces that it’s his birthday on “Blue Icicles,” and that he will bend the world to it, like he bends his body to his will. The 14-minute “The Daze” feels like another death dream, while the comparatively brief “There’s No Door” seems to be about the dangers of taking risks.

All of this is fine acoustic Jandek, more of a refinement than a progression. Listening to Jandek’s oeuvre in order certainly provides enough diversity to appreciate an acoustic guitar album when one appears – it’s a change after more than four hours of live electric material. But I can’t say why this one is spoken of more favorably than the ones before it or after it. It is exactly as interesting as those, in exactly the same way.

Listen to “Blue Icicles.”

#53. Glasgow Friday (2008).

After five shows in other locations, Glasgow Friday finds the Rep returning to the scene of his first on-stage appearance: the Arches in Scotland as part of 2005’s Instal Festival, on October 14. This time people knew Jandek would be performing, and you can hear how excited the crowd is between songs. This show reunites the Jandek Trio, with the Rep on electric guitar, Richard Youngs on bass and Alex Neilson on drums. In a lot of ways, it is a better, clearer-sounding version of Glasgow Sunday, the three musicians tearing the roof off with abandon.

From the opening salvo, the wild 13-minute take-off on Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” it’s clear this is a band that knows each other well. They know how to take and yield the spotlight, the rhythm section driving the proceedings as often as the Rep does. It would be easy for the more seasoned musicians to drop a steady beat and allow the Rep to make noise over it, but they don’t do that. They listen to what the Rep is doing and change up their patterns based on it, which is how their work ends up sounding so nimble and practiced.

Glasgow Friday is ten songs in about 80 minutes, and even though about half of the numbers are slower, like “This Wasted Life,” the set is over too quickly. The distortion is dialed down for slow-motion lament “If I Could Be With You,” but crashes right back in for nine-minute highlight “These Kokomos.” It’s just fun: “They shake me up,” the Rep sings in an unrestrained yelp. “Arms of a Stranger” is an off-kilter yet somehow strangely melancholy closer, and rather than thrash their way out of the club, they bring the curtain down slowly.

It would be exactly seven months before the Rep would play with Youngs and Neilson again. Glasgow Friday is an argument for bringing them back more often. The original Jandek trio sounds like no other Jandek ensemble. There’s a clear connection between the three players, and the two more practiced musicians truly set the template for collaborating with the Corwood Representative. In order to do it right, you need to be willing to fully immerse yourself in his world, and that’s exactly what they do here.

No tracks available online.

#54. Glasgow Sunday 2005 (2008).

Two days later, on October 16, 2005, the Rep played two sets of music at the Arches in Glasgow that were spellbinding in completely new ways. Both sets are here on Glasgow Sunday 2005, and it is bar none the strangest Jandek live album yet. It also continues the Rep’s apparent mission to expand the sonic definition of Jandek at every possible opportunity.

Each of these sets is about 25 minutes long. The first, called “The Grassy Knoll,” is an absolutely mesmerizing spoken word piece detailing how two subjects in a mind control experiment escape with their lives. The Rep’s oration is accompanied by guitar soundscapes, played by Loren Mazzacane Connors of Manhattan Tuesday fame. Between segments of the story, the Rep plays a mournful harmonica, and though it should be jarring, it somehow works with the atmosphere. Connors spins horizon-wide guitar lines worthy of Robin Guthrie as the Rep guides his story toward the bright light of its conclusion.

The second set is called “Tribal Ether,” and bears no resemblance to the first. The Rep plays drums (and yes, on the DVD you can see him play drums in his inimitable fashion) while Alan Licht provides swirly, loud oceans of guitar and Heather Leigh Murray plays lap steel guitar like a theremin and sings haunting, wordless vocals. The effect is like a horror film for your ears, and they keep this up for a quarter of an hour. I don’t have words for how unsettling and enveloping this sound is. It’s easy to get lost in, but you may never be heard from again.

If you want an encapsulation of the live Jandek mission statement, I think this is it. Collaborate with as many interesting people as possible – and these people are all very interesting – and let the music guide what happens. The results are artistically fascinating, from the big rock shows to the extended suites like “The Cell” and “Afternoon of Insensitivity” to the stunning noise conjured here. Unpredictability has always been one of my favorite musical traits, and Glasgow Sunday 2005 is nothing if not unpredictable.

Listen to “Tribal Ether.”

#55. London Tuesday (2008).

Of course, there’s something to be said for sounding like yourself, too. For all the diversity on display over the previous eight Jandek shows, there’s one thing he still hadn’t done in front of people: play acoustic guitar and sing, on his own. This, of course, is what Jandek is best known for, and his concert repertoire had not, until this point, included an opportunity to see him do it. In some ways, the idea is very strange. Acoustic Jandek has always felt like peering into a window while an extremely intimate ritual unfolds. We’re not supposed to be watching, and yet we are. So to be invited in to see how the Rep generates this sound is both exciting and uneasy.

The concert took place on October 18, 2005, two days after Glasgow Sunday 2005. (I appreciate that these three shows, performed so close together, were all released back to back.) The setting was St. Giles in the Fields, a nearly 300-year-old church in London’s West End. For about 65 minutes, the Rep treated a small, entranced audience to an eight-part piece called “No Mind Was a Good Mind.” The guitar appears to be in a standard tuning, and the sound is bright and clear. The Rep’s playing somehow sounds inspired here – it’s not appreciably different from the style on albums like The Myth of Blue Icicles, but the atmosphere of the church and the energy of the live setting somehow differentiate this.

As for the piece itself, it’s remarkably bleak, even for Jandek. He starts the first part by begging for forgiveness, admitting that he made a mistake, and his self-assessment gets darker and darker as the lyric winds on. In part four he’s a cancer that eats healthy tissue, in part five he suggests that if you want to be happy, you should run far away from him, and in the final section he claims that disaster is his name, he comes on like a plague and he wreaks havoc wherever he goes. There’s no light in this one. Interestingly, he makes several references in part three to the lyrics of “Naked in the Afternoon,” and somehow makes them sound even darker.

Somehow, though, the brightness of the strings in standard tuning works to soften the deeply intimate pain at the heart of this piece. Though it is oddly filmed, it’s very much worth watching the DVD of this show, as it was our first glimpse of what the Rep looks like performing his solo acoustic material. It’s revelatory. The Rep could not have picked a better setting for his first solo gig. In a lot of ways, London Tuesday is when the Rep fully came out of the shadows, giving us Jandek as we have always known him.

Listen to “No Mind Was a Good Mind Part Three.”

#56. Skirting the Edge (2008).

As if to present a direct contrast, the Rep closed out 2008 with another acoustic studio session, one that contains none of the life that was present on London Tuesday. Skirting the Edge is a weary-sounding album, with four long songs that stick to dreary tempos and sparse playing. It is the kind of album that would make me genuinely worried about the Rep’s mental health and safety. My hope is that making these albums is therapeutic for him.

Skirting the Edge is another utterly hopeless piece of work. The centerpiece is the 23-minute “I Know My Name,” and here is the couplet it is named after: “Pain and suffering and anguish is my name, just call me anything, but I know my name.” The entire album is this dark. “The Playground” begins with an attack by “hostile stone-throwing savages” and ends with the Rep pleading to trade lives with someone else. “Last Sunlight” ends the record with the Rep disappearing forever: “I say bye bye bye, I say bye bye…”

This is a difficult listen, not solely because the playing and tone are the same for 51 minutes. It’s so bereft of light, even in its physical sound – the Rep’s voice is notably downcast here – and so intimate that it’s hard to sit through. Jandek is often depressing, but Skirting the Edge is oppressively so, in total contrast to the playful live shows. Even London Tuesday, which is stylistically and thematically the same as this, sounds more alive. If this is how he feels alone at home, then I am glad he has the live shows to sustain him.

Listen to “I Know My Name.”

#57. Hasselt Saturday (2009).

The extended piece captured on Hasselt Saturday, “The Places You Left Me,” is similarly dark, but the novel performance style does a lot to leaven the depression. Recorded on November 12, 2005 at the Kunstencentrum Belgie in Belgium, “The Places You Left Me” is performed solely by the Rep on piano and vocals. If you can imagine “The Cell” without any of the supporting bass and percussion flourishes, you have the right idea. And if you want to know why I admire the Rep, the fact that he got in front of people and played this without a net is one reason.

It’s not that the Rep cannot play piano. He’s certainly not practiced or polished at it, but he has a single-note roaming-fingers style that feels unique to him. It’s that he took this rudimentary skill and showcased it for a solid hour, before an audience. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do this. “The Places You Left Me” is entirely improvised, musically speaking, and full of pauses and moments where the Rep seems unsure of where his hands should go next. But he pulls it off.

Lyrically, this piece is about the blues. Had this lyric been set to a standard 12-bar Buddy Guy rocker, they would have worked just as well. He vividly describes his own suicide two different ways, once with poison and once by laying across train tracks, and the blues tradition he is working in makes these seem like the hyperbole they are. He’s down, though, missing someone who has left, and at the end he welcomes the embrace of darkness: “Welcome, black night, help me forget all the joy I ever knew…” The Rep sings these words in the same breathy tone he used for “The Cell,” and the almost pleasant nature of the whole thing belies its jagged heart.

I continue to be impressed at the variety of ways the Rep finds to expand the idea of Jandek on stage. Hasselt Saturday isn’t, I think, anything that listeners could have predicted, and I love that those attending Jandek shows never know what they’re going to get. The only drawback of this album is that it is the first Jandek show not to be concurrently released on DVD. I’m sure it was an experience to be in the room for this.

Listen to “The Places You Left Me Part One.”

#58. Helsinki Saturday (2009).

Speaking of unexpected, there’s this, recorded a week later at the Gloria Cultural Arena in Finland, as part of the 2005 Avanto Festivaali. It is a single piece, just over an hour long, called “Sleeping in the Dawn,” and it pairs the Rep on piano with harpist Iro Haarla. It is fully instrumental, essentially an improvised lullaby, and it has a sweet, almost new-age-y feel to it. I have legitimately used Helsinki Saturday as drifting off to sleep music, and it fits that purpose beautifully.

The surprise, for me, is how long the Rep and Haarla manage to keep this piece going. The first major shift, which sounds like the Rep going for just the black keys, happens about six minutes in, and the pair manage several such changes throughout. I’d never mistake “Sleeping in the Dawn” for a composed piece of music, but Haarla is able to roll with the Rep’s unpracticed whims well enough that it can sometimes feel mapped out. One oddity about this recording: it was obviously done from the audience, as the chatter starts at a low boil and gets louder and louder as the performance rolls on. Rather than distracting, though, I find the low-level audience noise adds to the ambience. I have no idea why, but it does.

If you found the 20-odd people who heard Ready for the House in 1978 and told them that about 30 years later, this same artist would perform an hour-long piano and harp piece in Helsinki in front of a crowd, none of them would have believed you. It’s a genuine surprise, another surprisingly effective plot twist in the Jandek story. May there be many more.

Listen to the album.

#59. Not Hunting for Meaning (2009).

After the desultory Skirting the Edge, I think even the Rep might have recognized the limits of his solo acoustic studio style. Not Hunting for Meaning is the first attempt to shake things up since probably Khartoum, and for a short while it’s effective. This album begins with the closest thing to a pair of Jandek hit singles, two short songs played with a fire and aggression we’ve not heard from the Rep in some time.

Both of these songs are unhinged in the best way. “Front Porch Shimmy” is a shout-along, a string-breaker that is almost danceable. “I got you, baby, a thousand times, it’s turning my mind…” And “Stay Me Here” features the most unrestrained, absurd vocal in years, the Rep reaching for a high-wire falsetto on nearly every line. This one, too, features some powerhouse strumming, the Rep proclaiming “I don’t liiiiiiike to go oooooout” over it. The effect is surprisingly engaging, even if it brings you to the edge of laughter.

Unfortunately, that’s only nine minutes, and the remaining 30 are taken up with a long and winding ode called “Silent Wander.” This one returns to the more sedate playing style, though still not as hopeless-sounding as Skirting the Edge, and it’s a lengthy meander through poetic imagery. And it’s fine, but it goes on forever and offers nothing that previous acoustic albums have not. After the promise of the first two tracks, “Silent Wander” fills the rest of this album with one long fizzle to the end. Still, Not Hunting for Meaning is the most exciting and interesting studio album in some time, and a sign that the Rep is ready to throw some curve balls in this setting as well.

Listen to “Front Porch Shimmy.”

#60. Portland Thursday (2009).

If you can imagine Robert Smith of the Cure fronting a proto-metal band, you might come close to envisioning what Portland Thursdaysounds like. Recorded at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon on April 20, 2006, this one finds the Rep throwing down with some true luminaries. Emil Amos, solo artist and drummer for minimalist metal band Om, is behind the kit, while Sam Coomes, one half of the band Quasi (and one-time player in Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser), is on bass. That is a rhythm section to die for, and they lay down a rock-steady, relentless foundation.

And over this, the Rep plays electric guitar, but his tone is absolutely magnificent. It is a clean, reverbed, cavernous thing, and the textures he conjures with it are sublime. With Amos and Coomes providing the power, the Rep doesn’t need distortion to make a tremendous amount of noise. The first four songs of the set fill up disc one, as each one expands to almost a quarter of an hour, the band stretching out and giving the Rep all the space he needs to improvise in his inimitable way. “I Asked You Please” is heavy beyond belief, Coomes and Amos beating a thudding metal riff into submission while the Rep’s playing explodes from the contours.

The entire two-hour set is something to behold. “Trouble Away” is a crawling thing that makes great use of the Rep’s brand of lead guitar playing, “Come True” is an absolute powerhouse, Coomes’s sluge-metal bass line driving the whole enterprise. The rhythm section is so solid that whatever the Rep is doing, it sounds right – his flights of fancy are beholden to no key or time signature, but they never sound wrong or out of place. The atmosphere of the whole thing works.

The highlight here is “Whose Mister is This,” a slinky, smoky number built on a restrained foundation, and featuring singers Liz Harris and Jessica Dennison repeating the title phrase in harmony. They sound simultaneously sexy and creepy here, trading off lines with the Rep as he sings about how quantum physics gets him down. It’s puzzling and captivating, and clearly was thought out beforehand, not just improvised on the night. I would love to see footage of the rehearsal session to see how this one came together.

Portland Thursday is another that would be on my short list of favorites. The Rep sounds energized to be working with terrific musicians who obviously get his vibe. I never in a thousand years could have predicted that Jandek would one day sound like this, but here it is, and it’s pretty awesome.

Listen to “I Like You Too.”

Next week, albums 61-80, which will bring us up to 2015. Some remarkable stuff among those records.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jandek 101
Part Two: Blues Turned Black

#21. Lost Cause (1992).

I got into Jandek in 2007, which means by the time I discovered this strange enigma wrapped in a riddle, things were a lot less enigmatic. The Rep had already played live about 20 times, and had released a few of those shows on CD and DVD. Anyone who wanted to could see for themselves that the central performer in the Jandek live shows was the guy on all the album covers. As more shows were announced and the performances themselves proved to be diverse and fascinating, Jandek had taken on this strange new momentum. Before long there was a website and an email address, and the whole Jandek thing began to feel much more permanent.

But 1992, as I understand it, was a different story. The P.O. box in Houston was still the only conduit for Jandek news, and the unheralded appearance of a new title at the bottom of the printed discography list still the way most people found out about new releases. The whole enterprise must have seemed ephemeral, the records the only clues to the Rep’s intentions. How long could this possibly last? There was a rumor at the time that the Rep had recorded enough material for 19 Jandek albums, and once those were out, he would stop. Where that rumor came from, I have no idea. But he issued his 19th in 1990, and kept going.

You’d definitely be forgiven for hearing Lost Cause and thinking it would be the last one, though. It certainly feels like the end of something, and though that something would end up being this collaborative electric phase, there’s a finality to this one that cannot be overstated. Its first half gives us another retrospective of the recent styles, from the slow shuffle of “Green and Yellow” to the in-tune acoustic shimmy of “Babe I Love You” to the meandering folk of “How Many Places,” all of which feature Eddie or someone like him on guitar, to the de-tuned howling of “God Came Between Us” and “I Love You Now It’s True,” solo Jandek pieces that sound like the more aggressive numbers on Later On.

The interesting thing about the first half of Lost Cause is how biblical it is. The Rep sneaks the line “Christ is near if you fear” into “Babe I Love You,” and then spends the last two tracks struggling with his own spirituality. “God Came Between Us” is harrowing, the Rep shouting “He lit our hearts on fire and he put it out with oceans,” but by the end of the last song, he’s accepted his belief: “Jesus, in the morning, late at night, smiling, oh thank you Lord…” It’s the first real hints of the Rep’s idea of faith since the earliest albums, and it does feel like bringing them full circle.

And then there is the second side, which is given over entirely to a 19-minute instrumental monstrosity called “The Electric End.” If you can get through this without a throbbing headache, you’ll be lucky. Guitars burst out in completely random ways, drums are beaten into submission, the Rep and his friends yelp and hoot in the background. There’s some kind of strange high-pitched noise in the right speaker that gets more and more intense as the jam rolls on. Then, as abruptly as it began, it’s over. And it feels like putting all of this – the joyous pounding and thrashing, the cranked-up amps, even the idea that Jandek is a band – to bed. It’s one last blowout, the future uncertain.

At least for another few months. In retrospect, 80 albums later, Lost Cause feels like the deliberate closing of a chapter. These 21 albums feel like act one, like the early Jandek, and though it’s impossible to say when they were put to tape, it almost feels like some of these recordings were saved up and parceled out. From now on, Jandek studio albums will clearly be the products of single sessions with the same lineup, usually just the Rep himself. Lost Cause is an ending, but though it may have felt like the end at the time, the Rep was just getting started.

Listen to “The Electric End.”

#22. Twelfth Apostle (1993).

And just like that, we’re back to the classic Jandek sound: one man, one oddly tuned guitar. Except it all sounds different to my ears. Twelfth Apostle is the start of another acoustic phase, similar to the first seven albums, but it’s crisper and cleaner, as if the Rep has traded in the old tape recorder for a genuine studio setup. It still feels like a broken man alone in a room, but the room now gleams with a pristine shine. The effect is like a nearsighted person putting glasses on. The images, once blurry and indistinct, are now sharp.

The Rep sounds older here too, which makes sense. While there’s no telling when or in what order the previous 21 albums were recorded, this one sounds contemporary. The Rep would have been about 50 years old here, and his voice is deeper, his playing more confident. He has well and truly developed his guitar playing into a style by this point, and Twelfth Apostle is a showcase for it. He’s making dissonant chords now, and his strumming and picking sound more deliberate. He uses echo effects everywhere and pitch-shifting technology on “Whispers,” and it’s deceptively clever. This is also the first one since those early albums that definitely was recorded in the same session, not mixed and matched from various recordings of different ensembles.

And like those early records, this one is full of dark, surreal, sometimes spiritual imagery. The title track seems to be a plea from a man who would like to follow God, but is finding it difficult. “The Gone Wait,” a title which will be reused in a few years’ time, sees the Rep musing about “walking that faithful mile” toward the “promised land you hold in your hand.” But elsewhere he sings about losing an eye, about “going off the deep end,” and being “blessed with a putty knife.” It’s all unsettling, and the clarity in the guitar and vocals only adds to that feeling.

Twelfth Apostle feels like a new beginning, one that circles back to Jandek’s original core and builds on it. This was also the last Corwood album to come out on vinyl, so it really does begin a new chapter in this story. As we’ll see, this is the first part of a trilogy, and taken as a whole, that trilogy feels like a reset and a relaunch. I know that’s quite melodramatic for a 44-minute album of atonal strumming and moaning, but inside this universe, this one is a big deal.

Listen to “Twelfth Apostle.”

#23. Graven Image (1994).

I say that Graven Image is the second part of a trilogy for a couple reasons. For one, the covers of these three albums – Twelfth Apostle, this one, and the next, Glad to Get Away – are all very similar. They are oddly framed photographs of the same suburban neighborhood, likely the same one featured on Foreign Keys. It is easy to imagine one of these houses being the Rep’s childhood home, and perhaps one of these windows is the one featured on the cover of Ready for the House. It feels like a puzzle, like the “Paul is dead” clues on Beatles albums.

But more than that, these three records re-center Jandek on that desolate, dissonant acoustic sound that is the foundation for the entire project. For the most part, this album is again the Rep and his guitar, and the 15 short numbers here are reminiscent of the Living in a Moon So Blue era. The guitar style has definitely evolved, the Rep confidently setting moods and playing alien chords. Songs like “For You and I,” on which the Rep moans “I am waiting” over and over, sound impossibly lonely, and the spiritual imagery continues here: “I know there’s an answer waiting for you and I when we die.”

What separates this one from its predecessor? First, there’s the introduction of accordion on the instrumental “A Real Number.” The Rep plays this instrument about as skillfully as he plays everything else, and even though we don’t know it’s him playing, we can be reasonably sure. “Janky” is a genuine surprise, a fun bit of nonsense performed on harmonica and spoken vocals: “That Janky is clanky all the time.” And if you can permit the idea that there are Jandek classics, this album has two: “Ghost Town By the Sea” is typically desolate and mentions Point Judith, Rhode Island for the first time since Six and Six, and “Going Away My Darling,” the album’s longest song, makes effective use of pitch shifting on the guitar notes again. This adds a disorienting new dimension to the Rep’s picking and the surreal sweetness in the lyrics.

Graven Image doesn’t take any bold steps by itself, merely continuing the sound of its predecessor. But that sound is the purest form of Jandek. In context this trilogy sets the clock back to zero, in a way, in preparation for the out-there excursions to come. But if you are acclimated to the solo Jandek sound, it’s also a full experience in its own right. (Note: This was the first Jandek album to be issued solely on CD. The Rep would go back and reissue the 22 previous albums on CD and phase out vinyl production, making the original records of those first 22 pretty darn rare.)

Listen to “Ghost Town By the Sea.”

#24. Glad to Get Away (1994).

Glad to Get Away concludes this acoustic trilogy in much the same way as it began, with the Rep alone strumming and picking his oddly tuned guitar. But this one seems decidedly weirder, both in its playing and its imagery. Among the first lines here is “Hey mister can you tell me, is there a knife stuck in your face,” and it continues in that vein, the Rep spinning nightmarish visions alongside Biblical allusions and songs of solitude. This is a dark and surreal album, even for Jandek.

“Ezekiel,” for instance, focuses on a single-string playing style that the Rep will use extensively on the next album, and it opens with this nonsensical couplet: “Ezekiel, I don’t know your name.” “Moon Dance” finds the Rep declaring he has “life and death stains on my pants,” and conjures up a landscape of “bloody mountain chasing desert running freaks.” He repeats the word “fingers” four times on “Flowers on My Shirt” for no discernible reason. When the lyrics are straightforward, they are lonesome. “Rain in Madison” is about someone who drives in the rain to meet his love, only to be stood up. “Morning Drum” is about waiting alone, and it doesn’t even matter for what. The point is the waiting.

Amidst all this, the Rep cries out to Jesus on “Take My Will,” the closest thing to a Jandek hymn: “Jesus take my will, take mine and make it yours.” This follows on the heels of an instrumental called “Nancy Knows,” the first mention of our mystery woman since Modern Dances. And it is followed by a brief song called “Plenty” that sums up the Jandek experience: “You must, you must keep listening, I don’t know why but I must keep listening.” This is, no doubt, intended as a lonely and abandoned man hoping for a sign of hope, but it is also a reflection of the listener, drawn into this strangely compelling world. I don’t know why, but I must keep listening.

Listen to “Take My Will.”

#25. White Box Requiem (1996).

The Rep took all of 1995 off (this would never happen again) and returned in 1996 with White Box Requiem, his first real concept album. I suppose it could be argued that Jandek as a whole is a concept, and every record fits into it, but this is the first one intended to tell a story from first track to last. That story is a surreal one, as you’d expect: it’s about death and loss and reconsideration and a mysterious white box that the Rep keeps reminding us he has opened. I’ve seen many theories about it – the white box is his own coffin, for example. Even among Jandek albums, this one stands out for its ambiguity.

It’s also an interesting progression in this second acoustic phase. White Box Requiem is another solo work, the Rep on vocals and acoustic guitar, but it’s a much odder affair than the previous three. This one is half instrumental, and those wordless pieces find the Rep improvising solos on the acoustic with no accompaniment. They’re sparse excursions, experiments in echo, and the Rep’s playing style has evolved to be as restless as his artistic sensibility. It’s all atonal plonking, but it’s consistently inventive atonal plonking that never sits still. I will happy count that as a virtue.

These instrumental tracks are mood-setters – who knows what action they are scoring in the Rep’s mind – but the vocal tracks all connect. The lyrics reference second thoughts repeatedly, as the Rep opens the white box and immediately regrets it. There’s a romance at the heart of it, as heard in “Part Yesterday” and “Must Have Been a Miracle,” but the singer is unable to communicate his thoughts. He assures us at the end of the record that he “Didn’t Really Die,” but he ends this journey alone, having opened the box and learned… something? Something he should not have. There’s more, of course – White Box Requiem is one of the most discussable and debatable Jandek albums, if you can find anyone willing to discuss or debate it.

I find myself thinking that this entire record was improvised in one shot, and was originally much longer than what we have. The Rep found the bits he liked and cut out everything else. I say this because it all sounds tonally similar and all the songs begin and end abruptly. But I could be wrong. I could always be wrong. I have listened to White Box Requiem more than most Jandek albums, and it remains a mystery to me.

Listen to “Eternal Waltz.”

#26. I Woke Up (1997).

My first question upon hearing I Woke Up: Who the hell is that guy singing? The Rep introduces another anonymous collaborator here, a singer with a sort of laissez-faire attitude to his voice but a clear willingness to go along with the Jandek ethos. No one has any idea who this guy is, but he’s on nearly every track of I Woke Up, and then he disappears forever. It’s a riddle.

My second question: What the hell did I just hear? I Woke Up is one of the most dissonant, unpleasant Jandek listening experiences. It’s a fascinating storm cloud of echo-y guitars and harmonicas, and as improvised as all Jandek material is, this one feels like a bunch of experiments with obscure objectives. The three minutes of harmonica and accordion fighting against each other on “Get Back Inside” are an endurance test. “I Can Not” features that harmonica weaving in and out of two combating dissonant guitar tracks, and while it’s certainly unique, I’m not sure how to process it otherwise. “Long Long” brings the drums back for a hyper-processed sing-speak beat poem (with more harmonica), and while I have no doubt this sounds exactly like the Rep wants it to, it’s even more difficult than usual to suss out just what he was aiming for.

I’ve been waxing a little too eloquent lately about these albums, looking for readings that explain my fascination. I Woke Up is a good reminder of one of the main reasons I am fascinated by Jandek: on some level, I can’t believe there is someone who hears music this way, and who has remained committed for 40-plus years to pressing up that music and distributing it. The levity of “Pending Doom,” all hand percussion and chanting, is as bizarre as it is unexpected, as is the minute-long hymn that ends the record, this guest-star singer telling us that “God is now alive in the world today.” I can relate some Jandek albums to other music. This one is just, you know, Jandek.

Listen to “Long Long.”

#27. New Town (1998).

New Town is a pastoral folk album compared with I Woke Up. We’re back in one-man acoustic territory, but these pieces are like long walks alone. They’re mostly slow and rambling, sparse with lots of background noise, the Rep singing in his breathy whisper. The opening title track is one of the most conventionally pretty things he’s done, the picking purposeful and sedate. The guitar playing here gives the distinct impression that the Rep could sound more conventional if he wanted to, but he’s not interested. His tunings remain dissonant, his playing still more about communicating his tortured mind than approximating what most would call music.

Points of interest include the single-string playing on “Desert Voice,” this time with vocals; the odd romantic metaphor of “The Real You” (“When I was nine I wanted a real gun, they gave me an air gun, when I was 25 I wanted you, you gave me a stone…”); and the inspirational number “Who You Are” that sits at the end. Over the same slow picking the Rep wonders where his talents really lie, and what it will mean when he dies, before turning it around on his audience: “I came to ask you just who you think you are.” Given the stylistic shifts of the next few albums, this questioning of purpose takes on new meaning.

Otherwise New Town is the last of these traditional Jandek albums, or at least the last one before the major change in tone with I Threw You Away. It’s a reflective work, one that takes its time, and one can imagine the Rep considering the next chapters in the Jandek story while making it. The next four albums all fly off into uncharted territory, so it makes sense to issue this more grounded effort first. Considering what is to come, it’s easy to forget this one, but it’s interesting in its own right.

Listen to “New Town.”

#28. The Beginning (1999).

On the precipice of a new millennium, Jandek releases an album called The Beginning that, again, feels like an ending. This one came out in a time before the live shows, before Corwood could be reached online, and I’m sure the message groups were alight with speculation. Was this it? Was Corwood signing off? One could easily be forgiven for thinking that this would be the last will and testament.

The album’s first half is of a piece with the previous acoustic albums, from the aggressive strumming of “You Standing There” (which also appeared on New Town) to the single-note playing of “I Never Left You Anyway.” “Moving Slow” sounds decidedly like the early era, like it could fit perfectly on Six and Six, and “Lonesome Bridge” feels even more so like the Jandek of 15 years prior. The impression that the Rep is revisiting his old haunts comes to the fore with “A Dozen Drops,” which is another re-arrangement of the song once called “Nancy Sings.” Some of the tracks on this first half feel like they might actually come from that earlier era – the production is thinner, the Rep sounds younger. But that’s just speculation.

Either way, the intent is clear: the first half of the album is meant to evoke the past, meant to look back at where we’ve been. And then the second half… well, that is something new. It is entirely taken up by the title track, a 15-minute solo piano piece, and though we have never heard the Rep play piano before, there is no doubt this is him. He approaches the piano the same way he approaches guitar: with a restlessness and a curiosity backed by very little traditional skill. He just sorta pounds away at it, like a little kid learning what all the keys do. There’s something joyous about it, though, something like discovery. (What’s that, you ask? Is the piano in tune? Of course not.)

The Beginning spends half its time deliberately evoking the past, and half its time exploring new places we’ve never been. In many ways, this would have been a fitting record to end on. In retrospect, I can almost envision these first 28 albums having been created years before we heard them, the product of a younger Corwood representative, and The Beginning drawing the curtain. When next we hear him pick up a guitar, the Rep will sound considerably older, with a harsher and darker style. I have no idea how many years passed in real time between The Beginning and the next era. But it’s fun to think about.

Listen to “The Beginning.”

#29. Put My Dream on This Planet (2000).

But before we get to that next era, we have the oddest three-album interlude in Jandek’s entire catalog. It’s going to be difficult to even know what to say about Put My Dream on This Planet and its two successors, other than just marveling at the fact that they exist. They are remarkable curiosities awash with questions, most notably the question of whether the Rep actually expected people to listen to them. If Jandek has often felt like eavesdropping on painful moments, these three albums intensify that feeling to an almost uncomfortable degree.

So let’s just say what they are: these three albums contain nothing but the Rep’s voice. It is lower and deeper than we have heard it, and he has produced this to sound like he’s singing into an old Dictaphone, with strange silences between the lines. It’s uncomfortable, like the ramblings of a madman preserved for our amusement. I can only listen to this for short periods of time, and this first album makes that all but impossible. First track “I Need Your Life” is 28:44, and second track “It’s Your House” is 22:15.

I’m pretty sure “I Need Your Life” is a one-sided conversation with God, which makes it even less comfortable. There’s no poetry here, just plain-spoken pleading: “I want to be good and right, I don’t want to have to fight and lose, please let me win…” “It’s Your House” is similar, the Rep sing-speaking about building a house to let God in. He proclaims himself “ready for the house” a few times here, in a nice callback. (I like that an album so off the path the Rep has beaten ties back into his origins.) Finale “I Went Outside” is a brief coda about putting on shoes and going outside, and there’s a goofy bluesy charm to it. It’s also only a minute long, which helps.

I have been listening to Put My Dream on This Planet for more than 10 years and I still don’t know what to make of it. It really does feel like reading someone’s diary, or listening in while someone talks to himself. It is one of the strangest experiences I have ever had with an album. I often don’t know what the Rep is thinking when he makes decisions, but in this case I am doubly baffled. It works well in one way, though: Jandek has never sounded more alone.

Listen to “I Need Your Life.”

#30. This Narrow Road (2001).

I don’t know if anyone who heard Put My Dream on This Planet expected that the Rep would continue on in this style, but here is the sequel. It is very similar – just the Rep’s voice, reciting poetry in a low sing-speak tone, for another hour. This one sounds cleaner, like he got a new Dictaphone, but otherwise it’s like turning the page in his diary and continuing to read.

This time the Rep starts things with a half-hour piece called “One Last Chance” and then follows it with eleven shorter poems. “One Last Chance” is a therapy session, the Rep talking himself through hard times, giving himself the will to live right. “I wanna control my body, my soul, my mind, my spirit, I wanna be in charge…” After 30 minutes of this he ends up in the same place, asking for help to face a new day. The shorter pieces are easier to get through, certainly. “Yes You Are” finds the Rep talking to a woman, and telling her to “let my body tell you just what I think about you.” (A line like that is much more palatable when accompanied by music.) The surreal imagery makes a comeback in poems like “Just Like the Floor” and “Frosted Field.”

Some of This Narrow Road comes off more like a poetry reading this time than like listening in on the Rep’s internal monologue, and that makes this one feel more like a performance. I would like to see video of the Rep recording this. I think that might make the intention more clear. As it is, this is another puzzler, another difficult listen, and another testament to absolute loneliness.

Listen to “One Last Chance.”

#31. Worthless Recluse (2001).

The a cappella trilogy ends here, with an album of shorter poems. The sound has changed again – the voice is just as clear as on This Narrow Road, but the background noise and room tone are different. There is definitely a more performative aspect to this one, too. Where Put My Dream on This Planet felt like hearing conversations we shouldn’t, Worthless Recluse feels like it is aimed at us, the listeners. That makes it an easier thing to reckon with, to me.

Most of these final poems hover around the two-minute mark, like the digest version of the marathons on earlier records. “The Dunes” finds the Rep lamenting that he “missed the boat, the one sailing through your heart,” while “Interlude” is actually about an interlude, a moment of reflection upon seeing an old lover again. “The Stars Spell Your Name” is as romantic as its title: “When I find myself in another place, alone, when the dance is something I can’t do, through all these things it comes again, some quiet thrill that I love you.”

The centerpiece here is the 17-minute title track. It starts with the Rep working out his own loneliness and ends with him stepping into the eye of God. The final track, “You Won’t Get Up,” is a fascinating conclusion, the Rep threatening to beat someone down for a full minute. I expect he is role-playing depression here, but the cumulative effect of these three a cappella albums is like a knockout punch to me. They fascinate me, but they’re a chore as well, and by the end I feel like I’m down and don’t want to get up.

I do wonder if there were Jandek afficionados in 2001 who thought that this change in style might be permanent, that the Rep would continue to release these strange, vocals-only albums for years. Thankfully these three records exist as a curiosity, an island between two distinct eras of the Jandek story. They truly are fascinating, even if I never reach for them. In a lot of ways, they embody the unpredictable, restless nature of the Jandek project better than anything to this point. They’re unsettling, unnerving, unfathomable things. I love them, I hate them, I never listen to them and I am so glad they exist.

Listen to “Aimless Breeze.”

#32. I Threw You Away (2002).

Everything is different, everything is the same. I Threw You Away begins a distinct new chapter in the Jandek saga, and it does so by returning to solo voice and acoustic guitar. The difference here is utterly remarkable, however. First, the physical sound of this one is beautiful. It’s crisp and clear, the guitar strings shimmer, there is no background noise. This feels like the first professionally recorded Jandek album, giving credence to the theory that the first 28 albums perhaps were captured to tape much earlier, with more primitive equipment.

Second, this sounds like the work of an older Representative from Corwood. His voice is deeper, more worn. The bleakness feels more lived-in. The guitar playing is similar to that of previous Jandek records, but sounds more assured, more practiced. This is the vocal tone and playing style we will hear from now on, the one he has used when performing live. In retrospect, the a cappella records may have been the first contemporary Jandek albums, the first ones recorded shortly before we heard them, and this is the debut of the fifty-something Rep, going back to his roots and yet redefining himself again.

I Threw You Away is a mesmerizing album. It’s bleak, but that word doesn’t seem adequate. It is a lonely voice howling in the wilderness, of course, but somehow the hopelessness and despair is more tactile this time, permeating every instant. The guitar is dissonant, the voice unhinged, and they work in tandem, setting an inescapably dark tone. “Blues Turned Black” is the quintessential song for this style, the Rep reaching up for a plummeting falsetto while lamenting his “rotten, stinking flesh” and proclaiming “I’m gone, I can’t come back.” It’s powerful, and it never lets up over its 12 minutes.

It’s almost a shame that “Blues Turned Black” is so perfect and that the Rep hit upon it so early, because the other four songs, while similarly affecting, feel diminished in its wake. We’re going to be with this style for a long, long time, and it’s distressing to think that the Rep never quite manages something more fully realized than the first song on the first of these records. None of which is to say the other songs are bad. On the contrary, they are extraordinary conduits for the Rep’s despair. There’s no essential difference between them – they play like one long excursion through the tunnels of his soul. Even the harmonica solos work to further the effect.

I Threw You Away is an essential listen, charting the course for the Rep’s studio albums for the next eight years. After so many stylistic deviations, this one feels like the Rep has truly landed somewhere. It is still music only he would make, music that is built around limitations, but it makes emotional sense, if not musical sense. You cannot listen to this album without feeling the encroaching darkness, without wanting to crawl in a hole. That’s impressive. That kind of connection is the goal of most art, and I Threw You Away gets there.

Listen to “Blues Turned Black.”

#33. The Humility of Pain (2002).

Even more than its predecessor, The Humility of Pain establishes this new Jandek guitar style. I had never in my life heard an acoustic guitar sound like this. On previous acoustic albums – and even on I Threw You Away – the Rep found ways to suggest rhythm, strumming within what felt like a framework. There’s a root note to “Blues Turned Black,” for instance, that the song doesn’t stray far from. But the seven songs on Humility dispense with all that. The dissonance is much more random, the patterns much more chaotic. This is still recorded with remarkable clarity, so you can hear these roaming attacks on the strings beautifully.

The guitar style, which the Rep will adopt pretty much from now on, accentuates the confusion in the lyrics and vocals. This was all clearly done live, as the Rep’s long, low moans and more aggressive pickwork trade off. These seven songs are about stepping out of the world and looking back in, being a perpetual outsider, yet wanting someone to share life with. Some of the lyrics sound motivational, but the way the Rep intones them over this remarkably disorienting music makes them sound much more like internal battles.

Truth be told, this run of voice-and-guitar studio albums is the most difficult stretch of Jandek material for me to get through. But I think that’s because it does its job well. None of this music is supposed to be easy. It is meant to communicate a tortured and embattled psyche, and it does so with an almost magical effectiveness. It requires me to be in a particular state of mind to hear it, but I cannot imagine music more apt for the intended purpose.

Listen to “The Humility of Pain.”

#34. The Place (2003).

Having established his new style on acoustic, the Rep breaks out his electric for The Place, playing it in much the same manner. There are moments here when he absolutely attacks the strings, like the end of the title track, and the ringing amplified tones only add to the sense of chaos. The electric (or perhaps it is an amplified acoustic?) is tuned to the same dissonance, and at no point does the Rep try to lay down a rhythm. The guitar is, again, intended to communicate confusion and uncertainty.

These five songs all have definite-article titles (“The Picture,” “The Place,” “The Highway,” “The Answer” and “The Stumble”) and they seem to tell a story. It’s mostly an abstract one, with a protagonist searching for a key to open something locked up in a place, and there’s a lot of dream imagery. A song called “The Answer” provides none, or at least none that can be immediately discerned: “Imagination’s taking over me, I got geometric patterns, there’s lightning bolts and sheets of vapor, and a long coat in the haze…” The surreal nature of the lyrics matches well with the unreality of the music, and the return of the harmonica on “The Stumble” only adds to the feeling.

It strikes me how much these later-period studio albums already sound like live performances. The Rep is playing these as we hear them, with no evident studio effects, almost as if he is road-testing this new style before bringing it in front of people. Of course, when he did take the stage the following year, he sounded nothing like this, but eventually he would unveil conceptual pieces on guitar, and these albums feel like the trial run. The Place could easily have been performed in front of an audience – it no longer quite feels like listening in on a lonely confession, but more like experiencing something intended to be heard. That alone is a sizable shift.

Listen to “The Place.”

#35. The Gone Wait (2003).

The Gone Wait continues this run of live-performance studio albums in an unexpected way: the Rep performs the entire thing on fretless bass and vocals. He plays the bass the same way he played the electric on The Place, and the effect is similarly chaotic, only much more low and rumbling. As on the guitar, the Rep’s playing here never sits still. He bends strings, he slides his left hand up the fretboard, he attacks the upper register. In short, he plays bass like no one else on earth, and the lower tones complement his resonant moan better than you’d expect.

Lyrically this one seems to follow on from The Place. It’s all first-person confusion, the Rep’s thoughts wrapped up in nostalgia and yearning for someone to be with him. It cannot be a coincidence that this album is named after a song from Twelfth Apostle, released ten years earlier. It feels like this one is about memory, particularly the slower and more menacing “I Was a King.” But by the closer, “I Found the Right Change,” the Rep seems to have renewed his purpose. Musically he still sounds at sea, but the words take on a hopefulness that feels like light shining in.

That these five songs all sound the same is a valid criticism, one that can be levied at this entire era of Jandek. The Rep took great pains on earlier acoustic records to differentiate songs, but these all feel like chapters of the same story, like one long thought performed in sequence. This certainly adds to the feeling that The Gone Wait is a conceptual piece, but as we move along these studio albums the same style of playing will be employed for every type of song the Rep pulls out. The Gone Wait is novel, a wildly unexpected swerve to a new instrument, and yet feels of a piece with this run of records.

Listen to “I Found the Right Change.”

#36. Shadow of Leaves (2004).

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that 2004 was the most monumental year for Jandek since Ready for the House came out in 1978. Not only did he issue a record four new studio albums, but on October 17 he performed live for the first time, taking the stage unannounced at the Instal Festival in Scotland. Clearly he was riding a renewed interest in his work, at least partially brought on by the premiere of the documentary Jandek on Corwood the previous year. This must have been an extraordinary time to be a Jandek listener.

I have seen the Rep play live only once, in May of 2008, in a small theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I mention this here because the Rep played bass at that gig, and I got to see first-hand the way he approaches the strings (attacking them with gusto) and the fretboard (zipping along it with no rhyme nor reason). It is this image I have in my head when I listen to albums like Shadow of Leaves, which treads the same path as The Gone Wait. I can see him playing this material in my mind, and it adds a dimension that doesn’t quite exist for me with the guitar albums.

This time, instead of linking several smaller pieces together, the Rep lets loose for 29 minutes on the title track. It’s quite the odyssey, sticking mostly to the lower strings, the shifting tremors of sound providing an interesting backdrop for the Rep’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The vocal intensity ebbs and flows, the Rep sounding quite unhinged at times. It can feel even longer than it is, and it takes some getting through. Your sense of accomplishment will be muted somewhat by the two similar-sounding shorter songs at the end, neither of which leave much of an impression after the behemoth.

Just hearing the Rep play fretless bass is novel enough, though. The Gone Wait and Shadow of Leaves stand out among the guitar-centric Corwood catalog thus far, and add a fascinating new dimension to the Rep’s work. I am always interested to hear what he will bring to a new instrument, given his unique approach. As we will soon see, it is live audiences and new collaborators that will bring this exploratory side out more.

No tracks available online.

#37. The End of it All (2004).

Unlike The Beginning from five years before, The End of it All doesn’t offer a sense of finality in any way. The title does have a slight significance – this is the last album the Rep released before performing live for the first time, so in a sense it was the end of his reclusive period. But this one is of a piece with The Humility of Pain and The Place – it’s a solo electric guitar and voice record, featuring the same style of random dissonant playing (albeit a touch gentler) and long, low, moaning vocals. In a lot of ways, this feels like just another one in an ever-lengthening series.

The title is interesting, because The End of it All is a romantic record. The 20-minute “One of Those Moments” makes clear that the Rep (or the character he is playing here) has met someone special. The epic ends with these lines: “If you want to touch me, I wouldn’t mind, it doesn’t happen too often, this kind of thing.” The other three songs are peppered with meet-cute lines like “I was so happy, I still am,” “See if that soul you got wants to be with mine, then the other differences don’t matter at all” and “I’m at the best place I ever knew, and it’s just after I met you.” That last one is almost worthy of Cole Porter.

All of which is fascinating, since the music doesn’t sound even a little bit romantic. It is just as dissonant, just as foreboding as the previous five albums in this style, and the Rep’s vocals remain despondent and tortured. Musically this feels just as sad and bewildered as The Place, and coupled with the title (which actually gets a sweet spin on “I Hadn’t Been There Before”), one gets the sense that this new fling is marked for failure. The Rep is destined to be alone again. If The End of it All is genuinely intended to be joyous and sweet, it points to the limitations of this style. The Rep would find ways to create joyous music on stage. This effort, however, is a study in contrasts.

No tracks available online.

#38. The Door Behind (2004).

Mere days before The Door Behind was released, the Rep played live for the first time, and so many Jandekian questions were answered. Chief among them was whether the central performer was the same guy who appeared on all the album covers, and now there was proof that he was. This was the biggest tectonic plate shift in Jandek history, and to celebrate, the Rep issued another solo guitar and voice record, exactly like the last one. The fact that the photo chosen for this one, with a younger Rep sporting a wooly haircut and a long beard, rendered him unrecognizable from the live shows almost feels like a joke.

If you think you’ve heard The Door Behind before, that’s because you pretty much have. It is the direct sequel to The End of it All, continuing the same electric guitar style and the same sonorous, stretched-out vocals. It even features the same romantic lyrics, although here and there the Rep lets some doubt and confusion creep back in. “I’m Not That Good” finds him asking God for help taking a risk in his relationship, and “The Slow Burn” gets more paranoid and self-critical. The latter song includes this amazing line: “I need to kill those squirrels running around in the top of my head.”

But on the whole, this feels like just another in this long run of Jandek albums. It is the Rep’s third of 2004, and it offers nothing that the previous album did not. It is, again, an exercise in contrasts, as the troubling music rubs up uncomfortably with the (mostly) sweetly thoughtful lyrics. Only the Rep could make a line like “There’s no end to this moment, you’re the everlasting one” feel like being set on fire inch by inch. It’s fascinating, but it’s fascinating in exactly the same way its predecessor was.

Listen to “Gate Strikes One.”

#39. A Kingdom He Likes (2004).

The Rep closes out his most active year yet with this return to his acoustic guitar sound, and to the surreal, lonely imagery that characterized his early work. In other words, this one isn’t breaking any new ground. I wish I could convey the experience of listening to all nine of these post-a-cappella, pre-live-albums solo efforts in a row. It’s like crawling through the swamp of sadness for 20 years. Even the most heartwarming sentiment expressed on these records feels like the final moments before death, and the cumulative effect of six hours and 15 minutes of this wears on the psyche.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to say about A Kingdom He Likes that hasn’t been said about the previous seven records. There’s a strange lyric about one’s refrigerator being an altar to God, “whether you slaughter human, animal or grapes,” and that one finds the Rep shouting “skank, you skank” out of nowhere. There’s a song called “Your Own Little World” about spiders spinning a web around the Rep, and he ends that one by calling for a salamander to eat them. In some ways this one feels like a fall back to earth after the romanticism of its two predecessors. The aggressive picking on “A Windy Time,” which sounds like needles in a hurricane, is a nice change from the previously established playing style.

But there isn’t much to differentiate this one from the pack. At this point it must have felt like the Rep could keep on making albums exactly like this forever, if he wanted to. Thankfully, he didn’t want to.

Listen to “Sticks in the Marsh.”

#40. When I Took That Train (2005).

This one is largely important just because of the position it occupies in the Jandek catalog. After this one, nothing would be the same again. When I Took That Train ends a run of 40 studio albums – from this point on the Rep would alternate studio and live records, and over time would slow down his studio output to the point where 19 of the last 20 Jandek albums have been live documents. The entire idea of Jandek as a studio project ends here, and the redefinition that begins with the next album reverberates even now, 15 years later.

But really, any Jandek record here in the 40th slot would have been important. Does this one stand out on its own merit? Eh, not really. This is another acoustic album, one that is largely slow and muted, with the Rep’s dissonant playing and low sing-speaking sounding pretty routine by this point. When I Took That Train is a conceptual piece detailing the early stages of a relationship, and it plays with the same contrast that The End of it All does.

This one is sexier, if you can believe that, the Rep cooing and crooning to his lady love. (His “Hey baby, hello” on “The Image of You” has to be heard to be believed.) But this one earns its foreboding musical tone with the closing track, “My Escape,” on which the Rep tries to flee his new love, but ends up eating her heart while she eats his. It’s a nightmarish finish, and it almost makes the previous ten tracks of ominous music and romantic lyrics feel like they were leading up to something.

But with the excitement of the live albums on the horizon, When I Took That Train feels like an album you have to get through instead of one you will enjoy on its own. In isolation, it is an interesting affair, the sparse and dissonant guitars providing a fitting foundation for the Rep’s unique voice. But at the end of a long run of similar-sounding records, with much more interesting material in the wings, this one kind of lies there.

Listen to the full album.

Next week, albums 41-60, starting with the first ever Jandek live show.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jandek 101
Part One: I've Got a Vision

#1. Ready for the House (1978).

The first Jandek album wasn’t originally a Jandek album at all. When it first appeared in 1978, it was credited to The Units, but a previously existing San Francisco new wave band by the same name cried foul. The Rep quickly re-dubbed his project Jandek, and Ready for the House has borne that name ever since. It’s funny that the Rep chose a band name for this album, since it is clearly the work of one performer. In fact, it’s one of the loneliest records you will ever hear in your life.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to hear this in 1978, devoid of any context. I’ve heard Ready for the House described as “atonal death blues,” and that gets pretty close. Eight of these nine tracks feature just the Rep strumming and picking an oddly tuned acoustic guitar, moaning abstract lyrics in a breathy, amelodic whisper. If you told me that this album was made by a dead person whose spirit was haunting an old mansion, I would not be surprised. The first track, “Naked in the Afternoon,” is certainly some form of blues, but it’s skin-crawlingly creepy. The Rep’s voice sounds remarkably young here, and the lyrics are dark and sometimes Biblical (“Show Me the Way, O Lord”), adding to the chilling effect.

Listening to Ready for the House feels a little like spying. There’s a damaged quality to it that one cannot help but imagine extends to the singer, recording this on his own. It is one of those albums that questions its own existence while it is playing. Why would someone make this? That only makes it more compelling, if you can deal with the atonality of it. If you make it to the final track, “European Jewel,” you will hear actual fingered chords on an electric guitar and a song with an actual structure, which will make you question why the previous eight tracks are what they are. (The full title is “European Jewel (Incomplete)” because it cuts off mid-sentence, ending the album by dropping you into a bottomless pit.)

In many ways Ready for the House is the template for everything that came after. Even as the Jandek ensembles grow over time, even as the Rep steps out on stage, even as the sound gets impossibly bigger, the center of it is still a lonely man with a hole in his soul. As far as he strays from this solo acoustic sound, he always goes back to it after a while, as if reminding himself where the heart of it all lies. Ready for the House is one of the most existentially lonesome albums ever recorded, broken and sad and hard to listen to. It is unmusical to the point of being anti-music, a lone voice crying out in the wilderness with nothing to hold on to.

A couple points of interest: The Rep would go on to mine the lyrics of Ready for the House for album titles for years. “European Jewel” would be revisited many more times during these early years. The cover of this record, a day-glo image of a chair beside a window, feels oddly iconic to me, although it is demonstrably obscure. It just captures the Jandek aesthetic. And the name Jandek is interesting. As the Rep explains in his first interview, it was January and he was talking to a man named Decker. That’s it. As is often the case with Jandek, what seems mysterious has a very human explanation behind it.

Listen to the album.

#2. Six and Six (1981).

Ready for the House could have been a one-off and no one would have ever known why. But just as mysteriously, this follow-up appeared three years later. It features the first appearance of the Representative from Corwood on the cover, a stark black-and-white portrait of a young man in front of a curtain. There was no way of knowing in 1981 whether the man on the cover was the man making the music, of course – that would only be confirmed in 2004, when the Rep played live for the first time.

Six and Six follows in the same vein as Ready for the House, though it is crisper and clearer. It is still one man and one guitar, de-tuned into dissonance. It is still impossibly lonesome-sounding. There’s more finger-picking, though I am not sure the Rep is yet using his left hand – this album lives in the world created by one open chord. “Point Judith” finds the Rep spinning a story with a half-spoken vocal style, then revisiting the melody of “Naked in the Afternoon.” The ten-minute “I Knew You Would Leave” is a centerpiece, but every song is similar – dark and isolated, abstract and rambling.

It undeniably weaves a spell, however, and feels even more like peering in on someone in the throes of something powerful. If the first Jandek album asks why someone would make an album like this, the second one only compounds the question. Why would someone make an album like this again? Six and Six sounds like depression feels. The notes are wrong and jarring, the voice lacks in comfort, the atmosphere is suffocating. It’s a long, dark journey, and you get the sense that it’s just beginning.

Listen to “I Knew You Would Leave.”

#3. Later On (1981).

Released later that same year, Later On is surprisingly more playful. It’s still the Rep and a de-tuned acoustic guitar, but the first track, “Your Condition,” introduces a more aggressive, almost stabbing strum style and a piercing harmonica. Did I say piercing? That’s a barely adequate term for how this sounds. These wildly random notes burst from the speakers and assault your ears, especially if you’re not expecting them. The lyrics for “Your Condition” are “That’s your condition,” repeated more and more emphatically for nearly six minutes. It’s wild.

Where the first two albums felt more confessional, Later On concerns itself with a number of different characters. The Jenny of “Oh Jenny” gets an apology, “The Janitor” gets the Rep’s contempt (“It’s a disgrace the way you keep your backyard”), and three songs in a row are dedicated to John, Jessica and Jackson, who goes floating down the Mississippi. Final track “The Second End” finds the Rep singing “Joy to the world, alleluia” over a mess of strummed notes, like someone praising God during the apocalypse.

Overall, though it follows a similar formula, Later On is more robust and full of life. The Rep varies his picking style to come up with new rhythms, even though I’m pretty sure he still isn’t using his left hand. There’s something of a cowpoke feel to “Until Then,” for instance. This is still lonesome, but not as lonely, if that makes sense. It is far less of an existential pit of desolation, sounding more like the man of Six and Six looking outside for the first time in a while.

Listen to “Oh Jenny.”

#4. Chair Beside a Window (1982).

The idea that Jandek is a recluse with no friends is dispelled early on, as Chair Beside a Window marks the first collaborations in the Rep’s catalog. One of the quirks of these early Jandek records is that we have no idea when or in what order these songs were recorded, so it’s hard to build a story from them. It’s possible we’re hearing assembled mix tapes from years of scattered recordings, with no idea who is playing what. But Chair Beside a Window leaves no doubt that there were other people involved with its creation, for the first time.

The idea of Jandek as a band begins with this album’s reprise of “European Jewel,” which includes electric guitar, bass and drums. It’s a wild racket, with only the barest hint of the chord progression from the first take on Ready for the House. This definitely sounds like something further along the timeline, from an album like Foreign Keys, but there would have been no context for it in 1982. It’s just a massive surprise, even if it does sound like the Rep is overdubbing himself here to create a live effect.

But there’s no mistaking the voice on “Nancy Sings” as belonging to the Rep. Justifiably one of the more famous Jandek tracks, this one sets the otherwise unnamed Nancy’s crystal-clear voice atop the Rep’s atonal picking, and the contrast is strangely beautiful. That the Rep has musically inclined friends is but one of the revelations of this track. This is his first attempt at working with a more traditionally talented collaborator, and it sets the tone: the essential Jandek-ness of the track remains intact, even as Nancy explores a more tonal beauty.

Nancy (or I guess her sister Pat?) shows up again on “No Break,” an electric guitar and drums freak-out that also sounds like it is from later in the timeline, but the rest of Chair Beside a Window is the Rep and his acoustic. Even these are more varied. I’m particularly fond of “Love Love,” which dispenses with the dark abstractions in favor of a more straight-ahead message: “Love is the only way, love everybody, love yourself.” If Later On was an awakening, Chair Beside a Window is a healing.

Listen to “Nancy Sings.”

#5. Living in a Moon So Blue (1982).

It’s tempting to think of Living in a Moon So Blue as the first half of a double album, since it and its successor, Staring at the Cellophane, sport similar blurry cover photos of a guitar leaning against a wall. That sense extends to the shape and structure of the albums, too. We’re back to just acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica here as the Rep gives us 16 short tracks, most of which sound made up on the spot.

Only a few of these tracks top three minutes. The surreal poetry of the first few albums is replaced here with little koans. “Walk out, shut the door, now it’s the same as it was before” is the whole of “Suppression,” while “Alexandria Knows” is entirely made up of this line: “Why don’t you sell me two rhymes, I want to tell you two times.” There’s even an instrumental, “One Step Ahead,” which is just aggressive strumming without the vocals.

“Comedy” is the standout for me, because it is so utterly creepy. The Rep’s low, sinister “ha ha ha” is chilling, in a knowing way. It feels like one of the first Jandek songs performed with a bit of a wink, and that aspect of the Rep’s personality would come out more and more. This album is a surprisingly fun listen, but after the much more varied Chair Beside a Window, it feels like a retreat, and like the Rep running out of places to go with this sound. Eventually he’s going to have to bring that left hand into play.

Listen to “Comedy.”

#6. Staring at the Cellophane (1982).

But not yet. Staring at the Cellophane, the Rep’s third album of 1982, is a direct continuation of its predecessor. We get another 15 short tracks performed solo, and these really are the sides C and D of a double album. Can you handle 90 minutes of atonal strumming with minimal, repeated lyrics? This is definitely a way to find out. There are two instrumentals this time, but otherwise it’s very similar.

The picking and strumming is in the same aggressive style as on the previous album, particularly on a string-breaker like “Sand I” or the instrumental “Basic Themes.” The lyrics of “Don’t Get Too Upset” provide the next album with its title. This one can be funny. “Napoleon in Russia,” for example, is literally about Napoleon getting trounced by the Russians, and it ends this way: “Fall out a window, Napoleon, on your white horse and with your sword and your big hat and half a right hand.”

It remains strange to hear the Rep have fun within the same acoustic template he set on two of the most existentially bleak records I know. Staring at the Cellophane seems slight in comparison, and there’s no reason to recommend this one over its predecessor. But on two albums in a row the Representative from Corwood has shown us his more playful side, and considering where he started, that might be the biggest surprise so far.

Listen to “Rather Be Blind.”

#7. Your Turn to Fall (1983).

There are only a couple things separating Your Turn to Fall from the two albums before it. The cover photo is in full color, and is of a desk pushed up against a wall. (There’s a guitar case, and the guitar from the previous two covers could well be inside it, but it’s hard to tell.) And there’s a reprise of “Nancy Sings” called “John Plays Drums,” on which John, presumably, plays the crashing and thrashing drums. The Rep sings this one, and he’s not quite the vocalist Nancy is.

Otherwise this is another 16 short tracks, most of them played solo on a de-tuned acoustic guitar. There are some new echo effects on the Rep’s voice, particularly on a song called “Echo.” The lyrics are still brief and repetitive – “You Don’t Have to Entertain Me” is just the title repeated twice – and these pieces feel improvised on the spot, without a lot of forethought. There’s a pair of instrumentals back to back, “Decree” and “New String,” and the latter sounds like it might be the first thing the Rep played after re-stringing his guitar.

Honestly, the Rep could have continued making albums just like this one for years if he’d wanted to, despite how unremarkable most of this is. Instead, Your Turn to Fall marks the end of this acoustic phase – he’d briefly pick up this sound again in a couple albums, and then do away with it all together for years. Again, it’s impossible to know in which order these songs were recorded, but if the Rep is building a story with them, then this is the end of chapter one.

Listen to the album.

#8. The Rocks Crumble (1983).

Released the same year as Your Turn to Fall, The Rocks Crumble gives us our first real blast of electric Jandek. There’s a photo of a drum set on the cover, so you know what you’re in for. Cheekily, the Rep begins this one with two solo acoustic tracks, the menacing “Faceless” and “Birthday,” which is a solo rendering of the song we’ve heard as “Nancy Sings” and “John Plays Drums.” But then the clatter begins, and I can just picture the Rep having so much fun laying down these tracks.

Here we have three – count them, three! – versions of “European Jewel” in a row. The first is solo electric, and sounds like a full version of the incomplete one on Ready for the House. The drums come crashing in for the second one, and I should pause here to explain how the Rep plays drums, since we will be living with this sound for a while. Put simply, he doesn’t play them, he bashes them like a seven-year-old. The drums here are clearly not laying down a rhythm for the guitar, they are making noise behind it. I’m not even sure how to describe the effect. But this is definitely the Rep overdubbing himself, playing drums and guitar.

The third “European Jewel” sounds like a looser take of the second, and then there are two versions of “Message to the Clerk,” another song that will get some play later on, with similar bashing and crashing. The last four songs are the same, and it’s clear we’re hearing the start of a new Jandek era. The Rocks Crumble is loud, abrasive, and surprisingly joyful. It’s still one man alone, but here he sounds like a multitude, and it suits him.

Listen to “Lonesome Company.”

#9. Interstellar Discussion (1984).

Interstellar Discussion is a tale of two halves. The first half, as you may surmise from the cover photo of the same drum set, follows on from The Rocks Crumble. It’s a jam session, the Rep accompanying himself on stabs of electric guitar while someone else – he’s never said who, just that it is someone else, in one of the first interviews – plays drums. He even double-tracks his vocals on “Hey,” adding not-quite-harmonies to his own leads. There isn’t much going on lyrically, and there’s even an instrumental jam, but it sounds like it was a lot of fun to make. Everything is mixed so loud that the chances of getting a headache from this are pretty high, but if you like the sound of wild abandon, this is for you.

The second half returns us to the acoustic sound of early Jandek, and it’s all perfectly fine, if a little unexciting. “Rifle in the Closet” is the closest to a genuine blues song here, the Rep’s finger-picking giving it a gallop while he intones the story of a confrontation with someone named John. (Perhaps the John who plays drums?) It cheekily ends with this line: “The rifle in the closet is just the name of this song.” “Sung” finds him “looking at a blank page” and “singing a song that I didn’t write,” by which he means no one wrote it.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this surprisingly diverse second half. “Ha Ha” is voice and harmonica, the Rep trading off licks and laughs. I wouldn’t call what he’s doing on “May 7th, 9:15 A.M.” proficient in any way, but the finger-picking is more confident and rhythmic here. And closer “Kick” confines itself to one note on one string to tell the story of a drug addict, and it’s effective. All of this exists within Jandek’s specific world, of course, but this one feels like the product of a burst of inspiration, and that’s exciting.

Listen to “Rifle in the Closet.”

#10. Nine-Thirty (1985).

A back-to-earth moment after the previous two celebrations, Nine-Thirty is another solo acoustic album featuring 15 short tracks. But where the previous albums shaped like this one were playful and spontaneous, this one feels more like the cousin of Six and Six, at least musically. Tempos are slower, strumming is more laconic, and I don’t think he is using his left hand on this one, after two albums of fretboard freak-outs.

In short, it’s a bit of a return to “classic” Jandek, dark and melancholy and alone. The lyrics return to the abstract imagery of the first few albums, like this stunner from “Wrong Time”: “You can put your bloody mind in a paper bag and eat it for lunch.” The high point here is the five-minute “This Is a Death Dream,” a hallucinogenic talking blues that feels, for the first time in a while, like the work of the man who made Ready for the House. In a final surprise, the Rep reprises “O Jenny” from Later On, though this version is very similar to the original, save for the abrupt ending.

Nine-Thirty serves as a reminder that the Rep can disguise his loneliness with deafening drums and wildly played electric guitar (and he will, for years after this one), but the heart of the Jandek project is one man alone in a room, desolate and out of tune, crying out for connection. This is well and truly the end of the acoustic phase, as the next eight years will see nothing but electric band efforts. But this is the core Jandek sound, and the Rep will always return to it.

Listen to “This is a Death Dream.”

#11. Foreign Keys (1985).

Foreign Keys kicks off a run of 11 albums that are referred to as Jandek’s electric period. Where Ready for the House sounded desolate and forlorn, most of the music on these 11 albums is vibrant, joyful, random and alive. Very little of it sounds like it was thought out beforehand, just captured in the moment. In a lot of ways, these records predict the collaborative, freeform nature of much of the live material since 2004. The defining characteristic here is wild abandon, the Rep clearly having fun and howling his face off.

This album is similar to The Rocks Crumble, in that it sounds like the Rep overdubbing himself for much of it. Of course, it’s impossible to tell who is playing what, but the drums pound and thrash with the caveman aesthetic established on that record; the guitars stab out randomly, their jagged edges sometimes drawing blood; and the voice is unmistakable, especially when reaching for some imagined high note on “Don’t Be So Mean.”

So it’s a surprise, then, when a female vocalist appears on “Needs No Sun” and stays for the entire second half. This is assumed to be Nancy, of “Nancy Sings” fame, but again, it’s impossible to know. Her voice is rich and full, though, like Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and she drags these improvised jams in the direction of actual songs. She doesn’t quite get them there, but her contributions are the most tuneful and compelling thing about Foreign Keys. She seems absolutely down for whatever gets thrown her way. I like that the album bookends with “Spanish in Me,” sung by the Rep, and its twin “River to Madrid,” on which he is joined by Nancy. “Floating down a river to Madrid, ‘cause that’s the Spanish in me…”

It’s often speculated that Nancy was the Rep’s girlfriend for a while, and that Foreign Keys really begins their collaboration. We have no idea when these tracks were recorded, or in what order, but as you’ll see, they do seem to have been assembled to tell a story. Whether that story bears any resemblance to real life remains a mystery.

Listen to “River to Madrid.”

#12. Telegraph Melts (1986).

Remarkably, Telegraph Melts is even louder and more chaotic. It picks up right where Foreign Keys left off, with the almost violent drum hammering and rough-hewn, random electric guitar bursts. Everything is driven into the red, so that the physical sound of this album is almost painful. And there is Nancy, singing her heart out over this din, not so much trying to make sense of it as trying to keep it all from spinning out of control. When she’s not there, as on “Ace of Diamonds,” it collapses into ear-splitting insanity.

Again, it is impossible to know who played what. Is it a full band, each musician playing like the Rep, or is it the Rep numerous times? The sense of abandon certainly gives the impression of a jam session, but the distinctive style on drums and guitar points to a studio creation. The first half of Telegraph Melts is, bar none, the loudest and most menacing Jandek material until the live records, with only the harmonica-inflected title track to ease the tension, and even that is a glorious mess.

And then comes “Governor Rhodes,” five minutes of hippy-dippy poetry that changes the tone completely. The Rep and Nancy trade off lines, imploring us to “celebrate our love,” “celebrate our magic,” “chant and sing.” It’s remarkably unlike anything else before it, and leads into the sillier second half. “You Painted Your Teeth” is wild, the Rep taking the role of the bluesman who threatens his love with death, only in this case he’s adamant that his lady love not paint her teeth. “Impassioned” doesn’t come close to describing this vocal. “Mother’s Day Card” finds the Rep literally reading a Mother’s Day card in the same vocal style. It’s something else.

When people ask why I follow Jandek, I usually say that these albums are unlike any other I’ve heard. Telegraph Melts fits that description perfectly. In its own way, the musical evolution from Ready for the House to this is as vast as any left turns Bowie made throughout his career. It’s still almost anti-music, but it’s anti-music in a completely different way, and that’s interesting.

Listen to the album.

#13. Follow Your Footsteps (1986).

This electric band era of Jandek raises a lot of questions. One of the most fascinating to me is this: do the other musicians involved know that they are featured on Jandek albums? Follow Your Footsteps introduces a second guitar player, one who is much more conventionally talented and plays in standard tuning. There’s little doubt that much of this album was taken from jam sessions in which the Rep played drums and this new fellow played guitar. “Honey,” the opening track, literally sounds like a garage band warming up, playing whatever is coming to mind. The second song is called “What Do You Want to Sing,” and Nancy (probably) asks this question out loud, once, while the guitar strums and the drums thunder. It feels like eavesdropping on their rehearsals.

So I have no idea whether Nancy or this new guitar player (or even John, who may still be playing drums) are still alive, or have any idea that people like me are listening to their jam sessions. Follow Your Footsteps is undoubtedly the work of multiple musicians, much of it having been built around this new guy’s guitar playing. (It’s speculated that his name is Eddie, for reasons I will get to.) As such, this is the most “musical” Jandek album yet. “Jaws of Murmur” is a psychedelic nightmare out of Julian Cope’s fever dreams, but songs like “Preacher” and “Didn’t Ask Why” and “I Know You Well” are surprisingly pretty folk numbers. The Rep sings these in the breathy voice he used on Six and Six, and the effect is ghostly. “I Know You Well” is a legitimately lovely song, by any standard.

The Rep takes over in the album’s final third, giving us more primitive drums and broken-glass guitar. We get two acoustic pieces to round things off, and a funny closing track called “We’re All Through.” But even though this album’s conclusion is very Jandekian, the bulk of it sounds more like “normal” music than anything so far. Which raises another question: do we come to Jandek for “normal” music? We’ll be asking this one more frequently as we move through this electric era. Whether or not the musicians involved know they have contributed to it, Follow Your Footsteps is the start of a more defensibly beautiful Jandek. That’s a fascinating development.

Listen to “I Know You Well.”

#14. Modern Dances (1987).

Modern Dances is the sound of a relationship. I’m not sure there’s any other way to interpret it. While there’s no way to know how many people truly contributed to this album, nor whether these noisy jams were intended to sit next to each other on plastic and wax discs, Modern Dances sure feels like the only full-length collaboration between the Rep and Nancy. Her voice is on most of these tracks, and there’s a noticeable sparkle to their duets. It is entirely possible to imagine this as a romantic Jandek album.

Of course, it’s also incredibly loud and incredibly strange. Eddie, the more traditional guitarist, is gone, leaving the Rep to do his thing with the drums and electric guitars. Everything is dissonant and primal again. But where Telegraph Melts felt dark and ominous, this one is just a good time. The difference is the affectionate call-and-response between the Rep and Nancy. He encourages her at the start of “Number 512” by saying “Talk yourself into it, it’s number 512,” and then when she mixes the numbers up, he goes with it: “Five two one.” The words mean nothing, the relationship means everything. (Nancy goes on to complain, in full melodic voice, about the pace of the song and about drummers in general. It’s funny.)

Now look, I have no idea whether the Rep and Nancy were involved in any way beyond what we hear here. I know I am reading a lot into the way she sings the romantic verses of “Spiritual Song,” the way the two of them trade off verses on a new version of “Spanish in Me,” and the playful way they dance around the central question of “I Want to Know Why.” If this is a love story, it’s the weirdest and most cacophonous one you’ve ever heard. But it’s interesting to imagine that these tracks were chosen for this album to give this impression.

So when Nancy disappears and the Rep brings out the de-tuned acoustic again for the last three tracks, it feels like a breakup. This will be compounded by the sad, Nancy-less next album, but here, the end of Modern Dances returns our broken troubadour to his original lonesome state. “Open E” is as forlorn a lyric as he’s ever written: “Each and every day I dream a dream in which I don’t return.” After the rampant joy of the rest of the album, the finale is actually painful. If the lack of traditional skill employed here is meant to be an emotional conduit, Modern Dances is where it connects.

Listen to “Open E.”

#15. Blue Corpse (1987).

If Modern Dances is a relationship album, Blue Corpse is a breakup record. While, again, there is no way of knowing what might have happened between the Rep and Nancy, she’s nowhere to be found on this album, and its 44 minutes are filled with longing and loss. Eddie is back (and on “Down at the Ball Park” the Rep calls him by name), strumming an acoustic in standard tuning (and perhaps singing lead on a few tracks). Much of the album is just this: lonely folk music about missing someone. The covers of Modern Dancesand Blue Corpse were clearly taken only moments apart as well, which cements their connection.

Am I thinking too much about what is, in the end, a collection of strummy fragments? Probably. I would think these particular strummy fragments were placed together for a reason, but maybe not. That’s all part of the mystery of Jandek. All we can say for certain is that this is a very different kind of album than the Rep has given us before, one that is more specific in its heartbreak. The opening lines set the tone: “I passed by the building you were working in, I wanted to step inside it, I wanted to lie in your arms again.” “Your Other Man” finds the Rep returning to his anguished whisper, singing, “I guess your mind’s made up, I guess there’s not much left to do, go on, see your other man…” Vocally he sounds like he’s unraveling.

For all this, Blue Corpse is definitely one of the most traditional-sounding and accessible Jandek records. Heck, there’s a sorta-cover of “House of the Rising Sun” on here, and the centerpiece, the 10-minute “Only Lover,” is like Jandek’s surreal version of “Layla,” the strumming and echoed vocals building in intensity as the Rep sings of his lost love “gone floating down a river to Madrid.” It’s a nice callback, and shows at least some forethought connecting these records. If not for the closing minute of drum-bashing and an odd harmonica interlude, you may not even immediately recognize this as a Jandek album.

Listening to Jandek requires a willingness to enter the Rep’s pocket universe, where music plays by his rules. Live there long enough and even the idea of comparing Jandek to anyone else loses its meaning. You can only compare this music to itself. But within this universe, Blue Corpse feels like something special. It’s one of only a few I would recommend to the uninitiated, and yet its power comes from its context. It lives here, and to really feel it you need to live here too.

Listen to “Your Other Man.”

#16. You Walk Alone (1988).

Not for the first time in the Jandek catalog, the cover of You Walk Alone truly conveys the tone of the music inside. It’s a black and white photo of a cocky-looking young Representative from Corwood, decked out in his ’70s hittin’-the-town best. It’s a look that screams rock and roll, and You Walk Alone follows suit, giving us eight straight-ahead bluesy rock numbers. I don’t even mean blues according to Jandek – this is the most tonal, straightforward bluesy music we’ve ever heard under that name.

There’s good and bad with that. Eddie, the more conventionally influenced guitar player, takes over here, dominating the next series of albums with his clear, piercing leads and boogie rhythms, making a lot of this sound like a bar band rehearsal tape. Of course, I have no idea if this is still Eddie, or if there ever was an Eddie, but I’m using Eddie as a concept here – he represents the more typical blues-rock leanings of this era of Jandek, and as such is responsible for a noticeable drop in weirdness and originality. The Rep is still the Rep – his voice is unmistakable – but the bulk of this album is what most people would call music, and in the world of Jandek, that’s a little strange.

That said, Eddie is a pretty good player, and the Rep commits himself to these longer jams like he’s suddenly fronting Led Zeppelin. “Time and Space” is a traditional three-chord blues romp that he shouts over with abandon. “The Cat That Walked from Shelbyville” is a new version of “For Today,” from Follow Your Footsteps. “Quinn Boys II” is a sequel re-using the lyrics from Blue Corpse’s “Quinn Boys” over some tumbling lead lines, “I Know the Times” is a slow blues shuffle, and the nine-minute “When the Telephone Melts” finds the Rep almost doing a Bob Dylan over a clean guitar strum.

It all sort of feels like what the classic rock station in Jandek’s warped universe might play. It still retains the Rep’s unique approach to music, but he’s never sounded more like us before. Collaboration, in this case, has smoothed out a lot of the qualities that seem central to the Jandek identity. You Walk Alone is the first Jandek album to truly make me question what a Jandek album ought to be. It’s the first one that sounds like it might have been made for other people to enjoy, which, for Jandek, is a seismic shift.

Listen to the album.

#17. On the Way (1988).

Thankfully, On the Way is much weirder. I have no idea what might have possessed the Rep to put these nine songs on the same piece of wax, in this order. His reasons are as obscured as the drum set on the cover, rendered barely visible by a poorly exposed photo. (Have I mentioned that these covers should be in a gallery somewhere? You’d never in a million years think of this photo as an album cover, but here it is.) Whatever the logic, On the Way offers a journey unique to the Jandek catalog, sort of a retrospective of the places we’ve recently been.

Like the jagged one-man-band sound of Foreign Keys? Here’s “Wrap it Up” and “Bring It Back to Seventy-Five.” Enjoy the bluesy feel of You Walk Alone? Eddie is back for what might be the definitive version of “Message to the Clerk,” all crunchy guitars and barroom leads. Intrigued by the ghostly folk of Blue Corpse? The entire second side here is spectral and strummy, and the centerpiece is the nearly nine-minute “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” sung by a different male vocalist, yet infused with all the heartbreak of the most lonesome Jandek material.

As an overview of the recent sounds of Jandek, On the Way is interesting, and it does take the listener on a journey, especially the softer and more spectral second side. The poetry of that second side, especially “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” is worthwhile. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new experiences, and it is still dominated by a more straightforward tonality, but the trip is still worthwhile.

Listen to “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You.”

#18. The Living End (1989).

This record sports one of the classic Jandek covers, a straight-on black-and-white portrait of the Rep, looking about 20 and ready for anything. If you think the choice of cover photo might convey a more standard rock record with fewer hidden surprises, you’re right. The Living End is completely owned by the more conventional guitarist we have been calling Eddie, with every song featuring his bluesy rhythm and lead playing. So much so that this can almost feel like one 44-minute guitar solo.

In fact, what this feels most like is one long rehearsal/jam session by a blues-rock band hoping to play their small town’s summer festival. That may sound harsh, but one of the attractions of Jandek to me is that the music sounds like nothing else, and therefore can’t be judged by normal standards. This music sounds like a lot of other things, and can definitely be compared to other bluesy rock music. Eddie is a decent guitar player, but he is playing blues runs that can be set next to thousands of others and compared.

The atmosphere of this is still Jandekian, and we get Nancy back for a few songs at the end while the Rep (or John, or someone else) plays drums, but in a lot of ways The Living End feels like a regular local band rather than a broken otherworldly troubadour. The standouts are the longer ones, the jammy “Talk That Talk” and the gentler “Take Me Away With You,” but most of this album is surprisingly accessible. For a lot of people, this era is the high point of Jandek’s work, but I’m conflicted about it. After immersing myself in Jandek’s difficult world, there’s an immediacy to this one that is strangely uncomfortable.

Listen to “Janitor’s Dead.”

#19. Somebody in the Snow (1990).

The Representative begins the 1990s with an album that balances the pleasant (by his standards) and the bewildering (by anyone’s standards) better than any he’s made so far. It’s possible to listen to all of The Living End without once wondering what in the hell you are experiencing, but Somebody in the Snow has plenty of material that sets the garage-band blues of this period in sharp relief.

Start with the fact that most of the vocals on the first half of record are provided by a new female vocalist, which Jandek afficionados believe is Nancy’s sister Pat. (The Rep mentioned Pat in one of his few interviews.) She’s not as strong or pure a singer as Nancy, but she seems just as willing to follow the Rep down any of his rabbit holes. She sings the noisy-blues “Come Through With a Smile” gamely, and adds an interesting dimension to a brief jam like “Walking Around.” Eddie is here, of course, but the Rep takes over in the second half, and we get to hear him having fun in the studio, juxtaposing his detuned acoustic with his inimitable drum work and hard-panning his vocals left and right, to have conversations with himself.

The two standouts, though, close out the first half. “Om” is unlike anything the Rep has done, before or since. It’s a wordless vocal sculpture, his voice and Pat’s intertwining into an unnerving dirge. All by itself it dispels the fear that Somebody in the Snow will be The Living End Part II, and then the harmonica-driven “Bring It In a Manger” seals the deal with the strangest Christmas song ever written. I cannot even tell you what most of it means: “Said I’ll find a true eagle someday, give him my genitals in a paper cup, give him my soul and rainbow…” This makes up for the Rep later rhyming “Stephen” with “leaving” and “believing.”

Somebody in the Snow is named after a line in “Know Thy Self” on Ready for the House, and to me it feels like the Rep reminding himself of his roots. The second half of this album is the most Jandekian material we’ve had in a while, the sound of a lonely man making strange music by himself. It’s new model Jandek for sure, but it’s absolutely Jandek at heart.

Listen to the album.

#20. One Foot in the North (1991).

Jandek’s 20th album gets back to basics. The cover is intentionally reminiscent of the one adorning Later On, and for much of the runtime, the Rep sounds alone. He strums and sings over an electric guitar here, albeit one in standard tuning, and for the first four songs, that’s it. The seven-minute “Yellow Pages,” which opens this record, is like a mission statement. “You’ve got to help me, dear, because there’s no release…” There’s a genuine isolation to this song, and it carries on for some time here.

It’s almost a shame when Eddie shows up to play lead all over the traditional-sounding “Alehouse Blues,” a song that could be an outtake from You Walk Alone. (And may very well be, since we still have no idea when and in what order these songs were recorded.) But all is forgiven once the eight-minute “Upon the Grandeur” begins. It sounds very much like the same finger-picking figure that formed the basis of “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” but this more electrified version works surprisingly well. Its sentiments are similar, too: “And if you go away, I will wait here and miss you…” This is the last Jandek song like it, with Eddie’s leads and the Rep’s whisper.

After that the rest of the album sort of peters out, with the Rep playing electric guitar and drums on a series of mid-paced rambles. I like the insistence of “Dreaming Man” and the brief closer, “Honey.” But it is the decision to make his 20th album a reset of sorts, returning to the lonesome heart of the Jandek project, that makes One Foot in the North stand out. The next album will bring this period to a cacophonous close, and this one feels like a moment of reflection before heading off into the next chapter.

Listen to “Upon the Grandeur.”

Speaking of next chapters, we’ll do albums 21 to 40 next week, which will bring us through 2004.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jandek 101
Introduction: Bending the Universe

I listen to a lot of things that other people might not classify as music. Some of Frank Zappa’s stranger material, for example, has cleared many a room for me. I have a large collection of drone and noise artists that most people I know couldn’t stomach for more than a few minutes. Heck, a couple weeks ago I listened to all six hours of the Caretaker’s masterful artistic representation of dementia, and I would do it again.

But if someone asks me for the strangest music in my house, my go-to answer is Jandek. There are three reasons for this. First, the music is unlike anything else in the world. Second, there’s just an unimaginable amount of it, which means there is so much to talk about. And third, I love talking about Jandek. For nearly 15 years Jandek has fascinated me, befuddled me, surprised me and kept me enthralled.

I could talk about Jandek forever. And since I have my own music column and no one can stop me, I’m going to use the next several weeks to get down all my thoughts about the man and his music. I’ve wanted to do this for some time, and with the column ending later this year, it’s now or never. So welcome to Jandek 101, a series in which I will examine every one of Jandek’s 101 albums. (There may be more by the time I’m finished, but for right now, the catalog stands at 101, which is the perfect number.)

I’m not doing this out of some misguided attempt to get my readers (however many there are at this point) into Jandek. I don’t honestly expect that will happen, and the music critic in me would much rather you explore some of the other bands I’ve been championing, like Marillion or the Dear Hunter. I am doing this because this music has bewildered me for a decade and a half, and I’m hoping to explore the complex feelings I have about it. I have so many conflicting thoughts, and writing them down is a good way for me to work through them.

I get that this may not be interesting to anyone but me, and I’ll probably lose some of you until October. That’s OK. Jandek is certainly not for everyone, and a series of columns about Jandek probably won’t be either. But for those of you who do stick with it, I hope to do more than just talk about the music. Jandek makes me consider and reconsider my whole idea about what art is, and why we make it. Deep down, I have some serious admiration for the man behind this project, and I’m hopeful that over the course of this series I can articulate why.

So, question one. Who or what is Jandek?

The basics are easy, and yet complicated at the same time. It’s generally accepted that the man behind the Jandek project – the man who appears on most of the album covers – is named Sterling Richard Smith, and he lives in Houston, Texas. I say this is generally accepted because he’s never explicitly confirmed it. Smith zealously guards his privacy, preferring to refer to himself as a representative of Corwood Industries, the record label that has been releasing Jandek music since 1978. So that’s how I will refer to him here from now on. (Jandek, by the way, refers to the project and everyone who plays on it, not just the Rep, even though he is the central presence.)

There have always been two aspects to Jandek: the music and the mystery. I plan to spend a long time talking about the music, so I’ll explore the mystery a bit here. But I guess I would start by saying that I don’t really think Jandek is meant to be mysterious. In a society where people make music mainly to be heard and to be famous, when someone creates strange, lonely art for decades and basically refuses to talk about it, we call that mysterious. But I think to the man behind it, the music itself is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need explaining.

Jandek, for a long time, was a secret even fewer people knew about. Between 1978 and 2004, Corwood Industries released 40 full-length Jandek albums, and the only way to get one was to write a letter and send a check to a post office box in Houston. Writing the post office box was also the only way you could get the typewritten catalog to even know what albums were available. If you were lucky, you’d get a terse handwritten note back. If you were really lucky, you’d get a box of vinyl albums with a request to hand them out, as a way of spreading the word.

The Representative from Corwood has only given a couple interviews: two in the ‘80s, one in the ‘90s to a reporter who tracked him down, and one for a cover story in The Wire in 2014. While the information in these interviews has been gladly accepted by fans, people who know Jandek appreciate and respect the Rep’s desire for privacy. That’s how we ended up with Jandek on Corwood in 2004, the first and only documentary about a living subject I can think of in which that subject does not appear. (The Rep declined to participate, but gave his blessing and suggested some folks to talk to. It was this documentary that first piqued my interest about the man and the music.)

All of this, plus the fact that Jandek albums contain next to no information – only the album title, track listing and copyright date, no hint about who plays what – led to the theory that the Rep was some kind of recluse, or perhaps mentally ill. But in 2004, after more than 25 years in the shadows, the Rep appeared on stage for the first time in Glasgow, playing an unannounced set at the Instal Festival. He was never referred to as Jandek, but for those who know the music, it was obvious. The man on the record covers was there, singing, and beginning his 16-years-and-counting retort to the rumors that surrounded him.

This is why I say the music is more important than the mystery, and I’ll certainly touch on that as we go. The Rep has continued to play live, performing more than 130 times around the world, and each show is wildly different, usually featuring local musicians he’s never met. It’s in many ways the ultimate act of anti-reclusive artistic collaboration – he’s still a private person, but has opened his very personal art up to as many co-conspirators as he possibly can. He’s even appeared in a documentary, I Know You Well, which shows us how these shows come together and gives us lots of face time with the Rep, talking about music.

Quite a lot of Jandek afficionados have become less interested in the music as the mystery has evaporated. But I think the music has always been the point, and this careful dismantling of the wall between artist and audience – hell, he even has a website now – puts the focus on that music. So what is the music like?

That’s the most difficult question, isn’t it? It’s one I hope to explore in depth over the next several weeks. It’s also wrapped up in why I find Jandek so fascinating. By the usual standards, the Rep is not a good musician. He plays guitar, bass, piano, keyboard, drums and harmonica, and he does all of these things without exhibiting any skill at any of them. I say that not to be harsh – by the standards of proficiency we’ve been trained to expect, the Rep cannot play any of those instruments. His voice, similarly, is untrained, to put it kindly. If he has any true compositional skill, I’ve not heard it. His music is improvised, mainly on one or two instruments that are often in atonal tunings, with his trademark impassioned howling over it. None of it sounds like we’ve been trained to believe music ought to.

I’ve certainly questioned whether Jandek’s 40-plus-year career is a sustained musical prank. But I’ve come to realize that the Rep is as serious about what he does as anyone else I can name. I’ve often talked about the inverse relationship between skill and impact, and that deeply applies here. This music is all impact. And if you immerse yourself in it for any length of time, it’s the rest of the world that starts to sound wrong. The beauty of the intent starts to come out, too.

I’ve described Jandek music as the loneliest sound in the world, and even when the Rep surrounds himself with other people (who are much more skilled than he is), he somehow manages to capture that feeling, that desolation, that despair. I think Jandek music is largely about conveying that emotion, with no barriers. (There are other emotions too, some of them more fun, but we’ll get to that.)

And this is why I say I admire the Rep. He’s carved out a four-decade-and-counting career through sheer force of will. He decided in 1978 that he was going to be a musician, he tailored the music he makes to his own limited skill set, and he pressed on when others would have stopped. He created his own world, and somehow convinced other people to live in it. Rather than learn to play guitar, he bent the universe to his will – he still plays the same way, with the same random strumming and atonal tunings, only now he travels the world and does it in front of people. And did I mention he has made and released 101 albums?

It is that sheer commitment to a musical vision, even one this strange, that I admire. And as you’ll see, Jandek has become one of the most unpredictable, daring and artistically restless music-makers that I am aware of. The Rep is constantly putting himself into unfamiliar situations, testing how the music he makes might be molded into different shapes. There’s a bravery to that, and I respect it. I’ve seen him perform live once, in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2008, and that show – which featured a harpsichord player, a trumpeter and a dancer who occasionally added wordless vocals – remains unique not only among my own concert-going experiences, but among Jandek shows as well.

It’s that surprise factor that keeps me coming back. In this age of internet publicity, I tend to know a lot about every album I buy. It’s not uncommon for me to know the track listing, song lengths, producers, songwriters and guest musicians, have seen the cover art and have heard at least one song before plunking down my cash. Not so with Jandek. When a new album appears unannounced at the bottom of the list on the website, I still get a bit of a thrill, and until it arrives and I play it, I know nothing about what it is, how long it is or how it sounds. There will have been no advance reviews, and I will not know what to expect. That’s exciting for me, and very rare.

All of this adds up to a bit of an obsession for me, and I hope over the following few columns I can explain more about what fascinates me. I haven’t even talked about the album covers, a gallery-worthy collection of Kodak moments and portraits of furniture. The aesthetic is like nothing else, and he’s stuck to it for more than 40 years. I could go on, and I will, next week. I hope this is of interest to some of you, because I plan to enjoy myself. If not, I’ll meet you again in October.

Next week, the first 20 Jandek albums.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Comebacks and Outbacks
Welcome Returns from Canada and Australia

Comebacks

I had just turned 21 when Alanis Morissette’s immortal Jagged Little Pill was released.

I wasn’t quite the target demographic – I wasn’t an angry young woman, but I was young and angry. But once I got over my initial reaction to the ubiquity of the singles, I fell in love with the record. I’ve probably told this story here, but I was resistant until my friend Jeff Maxwell offered to pay me for the album if I didn’t like it. I couldn’t tell a lie. The album was – and is – wonderful.

I think some expected that Jagged Little Pill would be just the first in a long line of tear-it-up-and-burn-it-down albums from Morissette, and her subsequent career must seem like a disappointment in that light. She’s never recaptured the fire that she bottled with that first big swing. Her music since then has been about healing, about finding yourself and being as happy as one can be in this world.

It’s all been pretty good, but none of it has stuck in my memory quite like her earlier material. I have to confess that, while I heard them a number of times, I don’t recall much about 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement or 2012’s Havoc and Bright Lights. I’ve checked my notes, and I liked both records, but I couldn’t hum a single song from them. And I’m not sure why. It’s possible that Jagged Little Pill hit me at the right time, and struck a chord with me. Songs like “Perfect” and “Forgiven” spoke to younger me, and older me still listens.

If that’s the case, then I must be at the perfect age and time of my life to hear Such Pretty Forks in the Road, Morissette’s seventh major release. We’re the same age – she was born four days before me – and in the same way Pill was an album about being 21, Forks is a record about being 46. It’s her first album in eight years, but it’s her best in far longer than that. Stylistically, it couldn’t be farther away from the music for which she is best known. It’s a brooding, moody piece of work, mostly quiet and organic. But in its own way, it’s just as raw and honest and compelling as she’s ever been.

This is, in the main, an album about perseverance. Its first three tracks are my favorites, and together they are Morissette’s mission statement. “Smiling,” a song she wrote for the Jagged Little Pill musical, gets things started on a minor key note, Morissette singing about hitting bottom, waving a white flag, and yet continuing on. First single “Reasons I Drink” is a nimble piano number about… well, it’s in the title, isn’t it. And between them, “Ablaze” is a song about what she fights for. An ode to her three young children, it’s a sweet reminder of what matters: “This nest is never going away, my job is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze…”

From there, I think people will be surprised how piano-driven and atmospheric this record is. Morissette is still cramming as many syllables into each line as she can, but on a dark and deep song like “Losing the Plot,” it works beautifully. Her voice is as strong and idiosyncratic as ever, and these songs are remarkably confident. I’m not sure this will please anyone looking for the musician she used to be, but I’m very much satisfied with the musician she has become. These songs resonate with 46-year-old me in ways I can’t explain, but then, Morissette’s best work has always done that. And this is definitely among her best work.

Morissette isn’t the only Canadian songwriter returning after a long absence. Kathleen Edwards is not nearly as well-known, but she should be. Between 2003 and 2012 she made four terrific albums of down-to-earth folk-pop, and with each one her reputation grew. 2012’s swell Voyageur found her working with then-beau Justin Vernon and co-writing with John Roderick, and it was her most successful. She was, I thought, on her way to becoming a household name.

And then it all became too much for her, and she set it aside. She opened a small coffee shop (cheekily named Quitters) in Ontario, took care of her own mental health and built an entirely new life. And though I knew I would miss her songs, I could only wish her well. It takes great courage to step back, re-evaluate and change everything. Throughout she insisted that she was only taking a break, and would be back to writing and recording songs at some point.

Eight years later, here Edwards is with her fifth album, tellingly titled Total Freedom, and man, I missed her. This record is just wonderful. Its ten songs are strummy, melodic, powerful, memorable, sometimes pointed but just as often beautifully at peace. Edwards’ voice is as strong as ever, and as a songwriter she’s as consistent as I have ever heard her. The weakest link here is a song about her dead dog (“Who Rescued Who”), but she even makes that work somehow.

When she’s at the top of her game here, she’s untouchable. “Birds on a Feeder” is a warm finger-picked delight, Edwards singing the lines that lend the album its title: “I’ve got total freedom, no one to need…” “Simple Math” is one of the best love songs I have heard this year (or last year): “Love is simple math, I don’t care how old we get, I’m just one and you’re one and we’re two together…” “Glenfern” is a sweet song of gratitude for the good parts of her former life, and it sets a gentle tone.

There’s a bitterness to some of this, Edwards lamenting failed relationships in “Feelings Fade” and “Fools Ride.” My favorite of these is “Options Open,” a wickedly good country-pop tune about two people missing each other. “For 39 years I’ve been keeping my options open,” she sings, taking her share of the blame. She saves her best heartbreak song for the end: “Take It With You When You Go” is an exorcism, Edwards begging her lost love to take all the hurt with him, and in the end realizing he is “just a picture in my wallet I can’t tear up.”

This is such a compelling record, such a strong set of songs. Whatever it was that brought Edwards out of her quiet life and back into a studio, I’m grateful for it. And if this is the last we hear from her as a songwriter and performer, well, I’ll still be grateful. This album is a gift, one I did not expect, but one I am so happy to receive. Welcome back, Kathleeen, for as long as you want to stay.

Outbacks

I’m still pinching myself at the news that we can expect two new Midnight Oil albums this year.

The first of them, The Makarrata Project, is due out soon, and is reportedly a set of songs about the native Australian people and their fight for equal treatment. Amazingly, there’s a single, released last week – it’s Midnight Oil’s first new song in 18 years, and you can hear it right now. It’s called “Gadigal Land,” in honor of the Gadigal people whose traditional lands are now called Sydney. It gallops along on a guitar-and-horns pulse, and Peter Garrett sounds tremendous, full of that old fire. It’s a new Midnight Oil song! Exciting times.

We still have to wait a bit to hear the Oils’ new records, but there is one Australian band whose new work we can talk about right now. That band is Husky, and I owe Rob Hale for the fact that I even know they exist. When I say I owe him, I mean it – Husky is one of the most consistently great new bands I have encountered in years. Their sound is easygoing, led by the soft voice of Husky Gawenda, but their songs are superbly crafted. The band has moved from the acoustic folk of their first two records towards a more vibey electric feel, but that songcraft remains.

Their fourth album, Stardust Blues, continues that transformation, and the results are sublime. First single and leadoff track “Cut Myself Loose” starts as the band means to go on – its head-nodding beat supports an ocean of ringing guitars and pianos, all there to set a gorgeous mood. “Light a Cigarette” threatens to quicken the pace, but its light melody vibes along, its twists and turns marking it as a classic Husky tune. “SYWD” (short for “Something You Wouldn’t Do”) feels like a breezy piece until you try to count it out – the verses slip from 7/4 to 4/4 to 6/4 effortlessly. It’s a perfect example of Husky’s trademark: catchy songs that are deceptively complicated.

There aren’t any dead spots on Stardust Blues, which means it continues the streak set by the previous three Husky albums. The sound is new – much of this album was recorded in a 1920s mansion and artistic commune, and you can hear that relaxed feel throughout – but the songs are just as wonderful as they’ve always been. Husky remains a band to watch, even now that their records only come out in Australia. I bought the download of this album, since I didn’t have much of a choice, and there aren’t a lot of bands I would do that for. Husky continues to earn my love.

And that’ll do it. Next week, if all goes well, I start an extended project I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. If all does not go well, I’ll be back with more music reviews. Come on back in seven days to see how things went.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
James Kirby's Caretaker Project Comes to a Powerful End

A couple weeks ago Fish released his new single.

Fish, if you don’t know, is a Scottish singer with a long pedigree. He was the original singer for Marillion, back when they were disciples of ‘70s progressive rock, and with him the band scored their biggest hits. After he left Marillion in 1988, Fish launched a solo career that has certainly had its ups and downs. But lately – heck, ever since 2003’s Field of Crows – he’s been on a mighty upswing. 2013’s A Feast of Consequences may well be his best work.

At least for now. For years Fish has been working on what he is billing as his final album. He’s called it Weltschmerz, a German phrase that means “pain of the world.” I’ve liked what I’ve heard, from the menacing “Man With a Stick” to the expansive “Waverly Steps,” but this new single, “Garden of Remembrance,” is the first time in Fish’s long history that he has made me cry.

The song and its extraordinary video are about dementia. They detail an elderly couple as they struggle with one partner’s loss of memory and identity, and Fish digs into the ways dementia can make longtime lovers feel like strangers. The video depicts how moments of clarity can feel like tender reunions. It’s beautiful stuff, and it got me thinking about dementia as a subject. My grandmother suffered from it in her final years, and it’s always been a particular fear of mine, to lose my grasp of who I was and who I am.

This, of course, led me to research other musicians who have tackled this subject, and that rabbit hole led me to The Caretaker. I’d heard of James Leyland Kirby before, and in fact listened to both his solo work and his music under the Caretaker name, but I apparently missed hearing anything about his magnum opus. About four years ago, Kirby began releasing a massive project called Everywhere at the End of Time, billing it as the final Caretaker album.

And really, even just reading about it, this has to be the final Caretaker album, because there’s nowhere else for the project to go. As the Caretaker, Kirby crafted haunting soundscapes out of old recordings of 1920s ballroom music, adding effects and editing them into loops to simulate memory and nostalgia. I can’t explain how or why it works, but it does. Listening to a Caretaker album feels like being very old and looking back on fading moments of joy. It’s beautiful and sad and dark and magical stuff.

But I’ve never heard any of Everywhere at the End of Time, and today I plan to correct that. This album, released in six distinct stages, is six and a half hours long, and is intended to mirror the experience of dementia. The music, so evocative of long-ago memories, is meant to deteriorate over time, and listening to it all in a row is intended to depict, from Kirby’s point of view, what losing one’s memory and sense of self must feel like.

Sounds like a good way to spend a pandemic Saturday, no?

I’m listening to Stage One now, and will write my impressions of this monster as we go. I expect this will be emotionally overwhelming about five hours from now, and I will try to capture it as best I can. If it gets too overwhelming, I will stop, but I hope to liveblog this entire experience from start to finish in one go. If you also want to have this experience – and I understand I am saying this before I take the plunge myself – you can download the whole thing for surprisingly little money here.

OK, here we go.

1:30 p.m.

Stage one: Here we experience the first signs of memory loss. This stage is most like a beautiful daydream. The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days.

That’s Kirby’s description of this first of six albums, and it tracks perfectly. Here are twelve pretty, hazy pieces formed from 1920s ballroom records, with the pops and crackles intact to add even more of a nostalgic feel. This is most similar to other Caretaker music I’ve heard, with a deeply romantic feel, like remembering the best dance of your life. There are a couple here, like “Slightly Bewildered” and “Quiet Internal Rebellions,” that speak to a hint of loss, but mostly this is gorgeous.

I find this music so easy to get lost in, so evocative of holding on to a life well lived. Everything here feels new, but also familiar. There’s a tinge of melancholy to it, but an ever-so-slight one, and the overwhelming emotion is joy. The horns on “Into Each Other’s Eyes” are punchy even through the mist, feeling like springtime in the movies. These days do feel great, and I expect I will soon wish they were not the last. Stage two is looming.

2:15 p.m.

Stage two: The second stage is the self-realization and awareness that something is wrong with a refusal to accept that. More effort is made to remember so memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality. The overall personal mood is generally lower than the first stage and at a point before confusion starts setting in.

Oh, this is already getting to me. Stage Two feels like the same memories, only glimpsed through a thickening fog. Everything is slower, less full of life. The strings and horns weep instead of dance. I can feel the joy of Stage One slipping away, and the worst part is that none of it is gone yet. The songs are still recognizable, the memories still tangible, but you can feel that something is off kilter, something is slowing everything down.

When Kirby re-uses source material, that’s when this hurts the most. “What Does It Matter How My Heart Breaks” is built from the same piece that opened Stage One, only deteriorated and worn and sluggish. It’s like the song is trying to remember itself, but can’t quite get there. This stage ends with a song called “The Way Ahead Feels Lonely” – all of these titles feel like suggested meditations while the music is playing – and it’s almost desperate in its attempt to claw at the sadness surrounding it. The ending feels like sinking beneath the waves. This all still feels nostalgic, but that nostalgia is getting harder and harder.

3:00 p.m.

Stage Three. Here we are presented with some of the last coherent memories before confusion fully rolls in and the grey mists form and fade away. Finest moments have been remembered, the musical flow in places is more confused and tangled. As we progress some singular memories become more disturbed, isolated, broken and distant. These are the last embers of awareness before we enter the post awareness stages.

Functionally, this stage is not too different from Stage Two. These pieces are deteriorated further, some of them doubling back on themselves in an approximation of confusion. (My grandmother would ask the same questions multiple times in the same conversation, and this feels like the musical equivalent of that.) Some of these deteriorations are subtle, some are drastic as compared to Stage Two. The same piece of music that opened the first stage reappears here again, for instance, as “And Heart Breaks,” and it’s sadder and slower and harder to pin down.

There’s more noise here as well, which feels to me like the brain spinning fog around these memories, making them more difficult to access. A track called “Internal Bewildered World” barely feels like the music it is based on, the big band sounds only faintly audible beneath the static and drawn-out moans made from the melody lines. It’s haunting. Things get more confused and chopped up from there, as these memories gasp for life. This one is more jarring than sad, although a drone like “Aching Cavern Without Lucidity” no doubt presages some of what is to come.

I feel a little worn out already, and we’re just launching into the more difficult parts of this. The three stages I’ve already listened to encompass 38 of the 50 tracks that make up the whole, but only two of its six and a half hours. The final three stages are all made up of four tracks each, with each track running more than 20 minutes. We’ll see how I do. It’s not emotionally overpowering yet, but I am feeling this music, especially the sheer amount of it, in ways that I am not sure I expected.

4:30 p.m.

Stage Four. Post-Awareness Stage Four is where serenity and the ability to recall singular memories gives way to confusions and horror. It’s the beginning of an eventual process where all memories begin to become more fluid through entanglements, repetition and rupture.

Oh man. This stage was an hour and a half long, and it’s draining. Three of the four tracks are titled “Post Awareness Confusions,” and they sound like it. Everything is jumbled up and difficult to make sense of. These tracks are clearly built with the same source material as the previous three stages, but nothing coheres. There are snatches of pianos and horns, but they are soon swallowed up by the noise and fog. I found this music hard to concentrate on, but at the same time I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.

That’s sections one, two and four. The third section is called “Temporary Bliss State,” and it’s something else entirely – a respite, a reprieve for 22 minutes. It’s probably constructed from the same pianos that made up much of the earlier material, but these have been manipulated to sound like ethereal chimes, and they float through the noise, carrying you along. This section is no less confusing, but it is less abrasive, less horrifying, and in that way it lives up to its title.

More than anything, what I took from this section is that the length of this experience is the point. This bewilderment is unending, and an hour and a half of it is nothing compared to the everyday torment of a post-awareness dementia patient. Even so, I can’t imagine what the next three hours of this thing are going to do to me. My head is swimming, and I feel like I cannot remember the songs I heard only a couple hours ago. I have never listened to anything else but this noise.

6:00 p.m.

Stage Five. Post-Awareness Stage 5 confusions and horror. More extreme entanglements, repetition and rupture can give way to calmer moments. The unfamiliar may sound and feel familiar. Time is often spent only in the moment leading to isolation.

Oh. Oh.

I am spent. This is tough going. Stage Five is a story in two parts. First is the 45-minute “Advanced Plaque Entanglements,” which is the most harrowing part of this journey. It is like Stage Four’s most abrasive moments, but everything is ramped up. It is denser and more confusing, with more bursts of noise and disorientation. The most affecting parts come when Kirby lets us hear moments of the recognizable music from the first two stages – a few piano chords here, a horn line there. It’s memories peeking through the cacophony of terror, snatches of a former life that can no longer be remembered. These bits go on for mere seconds, barely long enough to register, before we are back to the howling. It is legitimately horrific.

The second part, just as long, is a descent into dissolution. “Synapse Retrogenesis” calms things down, sinking slowly into “Sudden Time Regression Into Isolation,” which is almost an ambient dirge. This is the last of the memories and identity being wiped away, and replaced with a dull nothingness. I cannot imagine living this way, hearing this inside my head at all times. I also am not sure how I am going to make it through the next 90 minutes if they are like this. This might be the most physically draining music I’ve ever heard.

I’m in it for the long haul now, though. No matter how emotionally and spiritually exhausting Stage Six is, I’m not stopping.

7:30 p.m.

Stage Six: Post-Awareness Stage Six is without description.

While I don’t agree with Kirby here – I am certainly going to try to describe this – I do think that nothing I write here will emulate for you what it is like to hear this, especially at the end of this six-and-a-half-hour journey. The exhaustion is part of the experience, the sense that nothing has ever been right and will ever be right again. While the previous two stages used medical titles for their tracks, this one returns to the emotional titles of the first few stages. (“A Confusion So Thick You Forget Forgetting,” as an example.) You’re meant to feel this, meant to succumb to its cavernous despair.

Stage Six is 85 minutes of near-nothingness, of darkness opening its maw and swallowing you. There is no sensory awareness for this stage – the noise has enveloped everything, but worse, the noise itself is distant and quiet. There are waves of it, but nothing like we heard in Stage Five. This stage is numbness, a mind unable to access even itself. What is remarkable is that it is clearly built from the same elements as the first couple stages, only slowed down to an almost time-breaking degree. We still hear the occasional piano hit, but it’s part of the empty nothing. The horns come in, distorted and sad, near the end of “Long Decline is Over,” but they quickly lose form and are folded back into the chasm. Everything has degraded until none of it exists.

And it emptied me right out. I’m not sure how to explain what it feels like to hear this, to come to this destination after such a long walk. And I am certainly not going to be able to explain the flood of emotions wrapped up in the final six minutes of “Place in the World Fades Away,” the concluding track. This whole thing is a dirge, in which individual elements can barely be discerned. It is the final dimming of the light, the final smearing of the lens. It’s louder than I expected, after the near-silence of the first three tracks.

And then, six minutes from the end, the dirge cuts, the record cues back up with the crackles at their normal speed, and the full-on 1920s music begins. And it is gorgeous. I think the idea here is that memories are restored at the moment of death? But hearing music, especially music this sad and glorious, after four and a half hours of confusing, heart-sinking noise, is inexpressible. It may be one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever had with an album. It’s stunning. The last minute of the album is the silence of death, and its abruptness is shocking and perfect.

This is a thoughtful, difficult, hard-to-digest work. But it is also capable of devastating you emotionally, of cutting past all the questions about how it was made and what it signifies and just stabbing you in the heart. I end it tired and sad and uplifted at the same time. I had more to say here, but I have forgotten it. I am lying down. I am lost in thought. My words are gone. This will have to do.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Something to Talk About
Taylor Swift Takes Some Important Steps on Folklore

Everyone loves a good story, and Taylor Swift’s Folklore comes with a really good one.

I assume no one needs me to tell them who Swift is. A darling of the country circuit as a teenager, Swift has masterfully evolved herself into one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Along the way, she’s shown a legimitate knack for tuneful, catchy songcraft, and for choosing some of the best collaborators in the business to bring her songs to life. The effervescent thrills of a record like 1989 or last year’s Lover cannot be overstated, and they helped elevate Swift to a position where her every move is watched and scrutinized.

So the fact that she made an entire new album in secret, while in lockdown like the rest of us, is a strong hook. Even on paper this is intriguing stuff: Swift’s main collaborator here is Aaron Dessner of the National, a band that exists about a thousand miles away from her usual fare. Folklore contains a duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and musical contributions from Bryce Dessner, Rob Moose and James McAllister. It comes adorned with monochromatic photos of nature scenes.

And the fact that Swift did not even tell her record company that she was making Folklore is all part of its legend, which Swift has spun here with aplomb. Every part of this story is designed to tell you that this is unlike any Swift album you have heard. Dropping it 24 hours after announcing it, which she did on July 24, was an essential part of the story: everyone will be talking about this album for the next couple weeks, and if you want in on the conversation, you better buy it.

I mention all of this up front because I did buy it directly from her, and the story behind it is one of the reasons why. I like Swift, and have picked up her records in the past, but I’ve not felt that pull to be part of the discussion about her the way I have with Folklore. I kinda bought in – I had to hear this right away so I could talk about it. I don’t know if this is a failing or not, but I expect this is going to be part of the new music experience going forward. FOMO will play a part in how well projects like this do.

Thankfully, while I appreciate the story, I appreciate the record even more. Folklore might be a calculated move, a bid for respectability and critical acclaim, but there’s a genuine artistry behind it, and its songs point to significant growth in Swift’s writing. Dessner turns out to be a strong partner for her. I have struggled to like the National, and a lot of that can be attributed to the lack of passion in their delivery. Their songs just kind of sit there. But the Swift-Dessner songs on Folklore, despite using the same trappings, are never boring. The best ones are melodic and interesting in ways we’ve never heard from Swift.

Yes, I know it’s a cliché to consider the slow, quiet folk-pop that makes up all of Folklore as more mature than a record like 1989, but hear me out. The main step forward here for me is in Swift’s storytelling. Her previous records have felt at times like extensions of her Twitter feed, addressing her romances and her celebrity with first-person bluntness. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the first-draft way to make her points. Folklore is more oblique – it finds Swift speaking through characters, delivering third-person narratives, and leaving clues for attentive listeners to pick up.

The two best examples of this are ones I picked up by being part of the conversation around this record as it unfolded. First there is “My Tears Ricochet,” which reads like a broken love song, but is sneakily about her travails with her record company. It’s the same lovely trick Aimee Mann pulled on Bachelor No. 2, and if you’re drawing comparisons to Aimee Mann, you’re doing something right.

Second, of course, is the teenage love triangle trilogy, which includes “Cardigan,” “August” and “Betty.” These three songs are each sung from the point of view of one character in this love triangle, with little lyrical breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout. Together they tell the story of a summer affair, from the perspective of the boyfriend, the girlfriend and the other woman. Swift does a nice job of telling the same events different ways, putting us inside the minds of all three characters. This is just good songwriting, of a caliber we haven’t seen from Swift before.

And these are not even the best songs. I have three favorites on Folklore that I think are as good as any songs I’ve heard this year. (While I do like the Bon Iver duet, “Exile,” it isn’t one of them.) “The Last Great American Dynasty” spins the story of Rebekah Harkness, who first lived in the Rhode Island mansion Swift now owns. Swift draws some nice parallels between herself and Harkness, and tells her tale sympathetically. “Seven” is a wonder, a song I would gladly accept from Tori Amos. It’s a nostalgic look back at a long-lost friend who had to hide her queerness from her father, told with the clarity of adulthood.

And then there is “Invisible String,” a song I cannot stop listening to. Its central idea is a reference to Jane Eyre, and Swift uses it to discuss the hand of fate connecting people and moving them together. It’s a very pretty lyric married to a gorgeous piece of music – the descending melody on “me” is my favorite thing on Folklore. This is a remarkably rich song, and I would have suffered through an album far worse than this one to get to it.

My main issue with this album is that it is too long, and that some of the songs here don’t pop like others. The CD version sports 17 songs over 67 minutes, and paring down some of the lesser tunes (like “Mirrorball” or “Mad Woman”) would have helped. But there isn’t much of Folklore that I don’t like. This album represents a shift not only in sound but in substance for Swift, and it’s an impressive one. It lives up to its story, and given how compelling its story is, that’s an achievement. I’m glad this album was a success, and now I can’t wait to see how she moves forward from here.

* * * * *

Of course, great albums are not always accompanied by backstories or by a cultural conversation that dominates social media. Sometimes the best records are the ones no one is talking about. Do I have an example? Of course I do, and it’s the self-titled album from Lianne La Havas. And frankly, this is a record that more people should be discussing.

La Havas is a British singer-songwriter whose work with Matt Hales, better known as Aqualung, brought her to my attention. Her work on her own is a complex form of R&B that centers her supple, soulful voice, and this – her third album – is the best example of it she’s given us. It is her first in five years, and it’s a breakup record, but a deeply joyous one. There are shades of Esperanza Spalding in these songs, but La Havas’s work is more straightforward and accessible.

It’s also awesome. Opener “Bittersweet” lets you know what’s up – it flutters to life on a slinky beat, and when La Havas draws back and lets those pipes loose halfway through, the moment is revelatory. “Green Papaya” is a lovely, jazzy folk song, while “Can’t Fight” is a loose and funky number with some sweet harmonies. La Havas again works with Hales behind the boards, and the production is exactly what it should be – the guitars are airy and rubbery, the bass is minimal but effective, and the sound is full without being crowded. There’s a live-band feel to most of this, and it works really well with her voice.

And at track six you get the best Radiohead cover you’ve ever heard. “Weird Fishes” is such a fascinating choice to take on, but she transforms it from a fussy bit of math-rock to a jazz-soul showstopper. I don’t know where the hell this came from, but I’m so glad it exists. Lianne La Havas is an artist who deserves far more attention than she gets, and I hope this album brings her some of the acclaim she’s been due. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how many people are talking about it, or not talking about it. A great record is a great record, and this is certainly a great record.

Next week, something that scares me a little.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Improvisation Without a Theme
Four New Records With Nothing in Common

Gonna do some quick ones this week. I’ve chosen four albums with no connections between them that I can see, except that they’re all worth your time and attention. I’ve been going to the same record store (Kiss the Sky in Batavia) for 16 years now, and they’re used to me now. But I do miss the strange looks I used to get from record store clerks when I would buy four albums like this together. “Yes, they’re all for me. Yes, I like all of this.” (Heck, at the same time I picked these up I also bought Inter Arma’s covers record, and I’m not even featuring that one here.)

Anyway, four albums, no connecting threads. Here we go.

Noah Gabriel, Summer’s Gone.

I’m sometimes wary about talking up my friends in this space, because how would you know if I’m genuinely impressed with an album or just helping out someone I know? I hope I’ve spent the last 20 years in such a way that you’d be surprised if I promoted something I didn’t truly admire in this space, but I’m always cognizant of the need for full disclosure. So yeah, I know Noah. I’ve even shared a stage with him. And yes, I really like his new record, Summer’s Gone, and would even if I didn’t know him.

Summer’s Gone is Gabriel’s tenth solo album, and each one of those has been a different beast. This time he’s stripped things down – acoustic guitar, bass, drums and vocals – and made a sparse yet full-sounding album that lets the rawness of the performances take the spotlight. Gabriel has always had a love for ‘90s music, and this one combines that with his more obvious inspiration here, Chris Whitley.

The songs are all Gabriel, though, and they’re good ones. I’m impressed with how smoothly “Rocking Horse Road” switches from 5/8 to 6/8, and how nimbly bassist John Abbey and drummer Gerald Dowd navigate these changes. Gabriel is a hell of a guitar player – you can hear him in full electric mode on the two records he made with his band, Noah’s Arcade – but here he sometimes barely plays anything, just enough to set the song’s atmosphere and nothing more. That’s especially true on standout “Crazy,” which feels like it’s hanging together through sheer willpower. I admire Gabriel for not touching that performance, for letting it appear here just as it is.

Gabriel has been clear about his inspirations for this album, but this never sounds like an imitation or a pastiche. It’s just Noah trying on new clothes, and finding that they fit beautifully. The sound of this record is remarkable, minimal yet room-filling. And I love that he ended it with a song called “Never Say Goodbye.” Gabriel is a prolific writer – I’m sure in the time it took me to formulate these thoughts he’s written another album or two – but this one feels like an album to pause on for a bit, to really take in. It’s a special one.

You can hear and buy Summer’s Gone here.

Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started.

I’m not sure why Margo Price isn’t already a household name. But if there’s any justice, her third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, will be the one to do it.

Price is part of the alt-country movement that includes Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, who produced this new record. She sings like a bird and writes impressive, heartfelt songs. Really, that’s it. There’s no other gimmick or hook here, just ten lovely songs, sung beautifully and played by a dream team including Simpson, Benmont Tench and Pino Palladino. If that sounds good to you, buy this now.

For my part, I think this album is her best. The more traditional twang of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is all but gone, and in its place is a mix of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac that works brilliantly with her voice. “Letting Me Down” is a perfect barnburner of a single, “Stone Me” is a classic epic ballad, “What Happened To Our Love” rides a “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” groove, and the terrific “Hey Child” gives that voice a workout, with a choir of voices backing her up. She saves the best for last with “I’d Die for You,” a song that feels magical to these ears. The performance here is stunning.

I can only hope that we live in a different world than I think we do, one that will embrace this record and give Price the attention and love she deserves. Three records in and she’s firmly established herself as a songwriter worth watching and a performer worth falling for. She’s one of the most straightforwardly great new voices in popular music, and I recommend this album (and her other two) highly.

Enuff Z’Nuff, Brainwashed Generation.

I think this time I’m going to skip all of the “you don’t know Enuff Z’Nuff” rigamarole and just get right to it. Let’s take it as a given that EZN is one of the most consistent and consistently overlooked power pop bands in the world, with a catalog far richer than their two hits back in the late ‘80s would indicate. Let’s also take it as a given that Donnie Vie’s solo career is similarly rich and overlooked, and that you should buy his wonderful album of last year, Beautiful Things, right now.

Brainwashed Generation is the 15th Enuff Z’Nuff album, and the second to be led by bassist Chip Z’Nuff. Donnie Vie left the band acrimoniously some time ago, but kept coming back for new recordings. But with 2018’s Diamond Boy, Z’Nuff took full control of the band, writing and singing all the songs. And it was pretty good, honestly. Not nearly the same level of quality as the Vie-Z’Nuff partnership produced, and Z’Nuff’s voice leaves a lot to be desired. But it was pretty good.

Brainwashed Generation is similarly pretty good. It’s in the same vein as its predecessor, if a little darker and more drawn-out. Songs like “Drugland Weekend” and “Help I’m in Hell” are pretty much what you think they will be from their titles – crawling riff monsters that emphasize the harder aspects of the band’s sound. Z’Nuff never forgets the melodies, of course, and the Beatles influence remains as strong as ever. The songs are longer and slower than on Diamond Boy, but they still sound like EZN.

And then there is “Strangers in My Head,” the one song here to feature Vie on vocals. He wrote this one with Z’Nuff, their first collaboration in about a decade, and (sorry Chip) it’s the best thing here. I have been enjoying Chip’s version of the band, but I find myself hoping that “Strangers” is just the start of a renewed partnership. I’d love to have at least one more Vie-Z’Nuff album.

In the meantime, Brainwashed Generation is a decent record that serves as a fine addition to the catalog. All power pop bands should have this one’s sense of harmony and tunesmanship. I’m happy to have found them and to have followed them all these years. Long may they run.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, RoundAgain.

I don’t talk about jazz too much in this space, even though I’m a fan. The main problem is that I can’t figure out what to say about most jazz records. “Hey, listen to this, the playing is really good.” Like, over and over again. I’m afraid that’s what this little review will boil down to, but in my defense, the playing here is really good and you should listen to this.

Back in 1994, saxophonist Joshua Redman released an album called Moodswing. It was the first of his albums I picked up, and it remains in rotation at my house. His backing band consisted of three young guys just starting their careers. You can see their names up there, and if you know jazz, you know that in the ensuing 26 years, all three have carved out remarkable careers. I’m a piano player, and Brad Mehldau is one of my idols. And I’m not sure there are better bassists and drummers in jazz than Christian McBride and Brian Blade.

RoundAgain is a reunion album, then, only this time all four players are significant enough to have their names on the cover. They play here like they’ve been practicing together for all of those 26 years. These seven songs all give the players room to jam, and their interplay is electric. Redman can sometimes be a little sedate for me, but he’s on fire for much of this, feeding off of his rhythm section. Blade is astonishing, as always, thinking through every percussion hit and how it serves the song.

All four write here, and I was struck by how clear the authorship was. Redman’s tunes are straightforward bops, like “Silly Little Love Song,” where Mehldau’s are complex workouts. There’s a rhythmic shift near the end of the what-the-hell-time-signature-is-this-in “Moe Honk” that feels so organic that it’s almost supernatural. McBride’s “Floppy Diss” leaves room for the bass to shine, while closer “Your Part to Play” is Blade’s ballad, a generous offering that provides the most spare and atmospheric five minutes of the record.

Really, though, this all can be summed up by saying “the playing is really good.” It’s a joy to hear these four guys back together, making gorgeous music, and I can only hope that they have another one or two (or ten) records in them as good as this one. I’ll be first in line.

Next week, I’m not sure, but I have a few options. August is crazy with new releases, but July leaves me wanting a little bit. We shall persevere.

See you in line Tuesday morning.