Friday, June 06, 2008

Trotsky Icepick - Baby

Trotsky Icepick was a Los Angeles underground supergroup of sorts, formed by songwriters Vitus Mataré (formerly of The Last) and Kjehl Johansen (100 Flowers, Urinals). Originally, the band planned to change names with every album, but keep the same album title. This resulted in two albums entitled Poison Summer, the first released by Danny and the Doorknobs in 1985, the second by Trotsky Icepick in 1986.

After the second Poison Summer album it became clear that this plan was impractical, and the band name Trotsky Icepick (originally only intended as a bad joke, "the ultimate earache," get it?) stuck.

Released on the SST label in 1988, Baby, is either the band's second or third album, depending on how you look at it. I also thought it was their best (although 1991's The Ultraviolet Catastrophe has one of the coolest album titles ever).

Because of my involvement with my college's radio station, I interviewed Mataré by phone shortly after Baby's release. Of course it's hard to remember what was said that long ago, and I know my memory is not 100% reliable. But a couple things stand out in my mind. I remember discussing his time with The Last, and his production/engineering work for other bands, including Angst. I specifically remember him telling me that although he literally did his recording in a studio he set up in his garage, he really hoped he didn't make the records sound like the work of a "garage band." He had never been happy with the lo-fi, garage rock sound of The Last's first album, L.A. Explosion, and was very serious about his work as an engineer. While he was obviously working on a limited budget, and not trying for a slick commercial sound, he also didn't want the production to stand in the way of the music. For the most part I think he succeeded in that regard; the production on Baby never gets in the way of the music, either by being too primitive or too slick.

I also asked him specifically about the song "bury manilow," which was getting a lot of airplay on our radio station at the time. An attack on the shallowness of pop music (and I guess specifically Barry Manilow), Mataré told me he considered the song a failure. I remember him telling me regretfully, "I picked too easy of a target." That may be true, but I don't think that's where the song fails. "bury manilow" actually succeeds too brilliantly as pop music in its own right to function as a credible critique of the form. The lyrics "Simple words and maybe a melody, It doesn't bug you driving your car" describe Mataré's bouncy, catchy song far better than it does anything by Barry Manilow. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.

In contrast to Mataré's more pop-friendly concoctions, Kjehl Johansen's songs like "dante's flames" and "pillars of salt" have a more spiky, post-punk sound to them that was clearly influenced by British bands like Magazine and Joy Division (the band would cover Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me" on their next album). These are fine songs too, but I tend to prefer Mataré's bouncy ditties, despite (or perhaps because of) his distinctive nasal vocals.

Long out-of-print, Baby is still available cheap on the used market. Recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Goodness, I've been looking for "bury manilow" for YEARS!