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.