September 27, 2010

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Douglas Martin’s favorite Hemingway book is “The Sun Also Rises.” 

Twenty-one years ago, Chris Lombardi had the same idea many young and enterprising music lovers have had: he would form his own record label. Whether he was deeply enthralled with Spanish culture or just stoned and eating Frosted Flakes while watching the episode of Looney Tunes where Bugs Bunny fights a bull remains to be seen, but the important thing is that in a New York City flat sometime during 1989, Matador Records was born. Although labels like Sub Pop, K, and Merge helped significantly shape indie-rock into what it is today, and what its been known for historically, Matador not only created the term itself, but most of the bands that inspired it. Matador shrugged at the idea of “college-rock”, instead abbreviating the word that once separated them from major labels and mainstream America — which now represents a worldwide network of underground music fans and an entire culture. If you’ve got a bone to pick with indie-rock culture, you should probably take it up with Lombardi and Matador co-owner Gerald Cosloy.

This weekend, America’s definitive indie-rock record label will celebrate their 21st birthday the red-blooded American Way: with a huge blowout in Las Vegas which is sure to include bands, booze, throwing up on the strip in front of the dudes that pass out call girl flyers, and attending a shotgun wedding or two. There’s a little part of me that’s quite a bit jealous, because I spent my 21st birthday buying Boone’s Farm from a grocery store clerk who didn’t even card me.

To celebrate the occasion, I’ve put together two lists in reverse chronological order, each containing five essential Matador-released albums, covering most of the label’s history and showcasing their remarkable depth as a rest haven for great music. Here’s to twenty-one years of incredible records, Matador. Now you have nothing to look forward to until you turn twenty-five and your car insurance premium drops.

Times New Viking – Born Again Revisited (2009)

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Rip it Off, TNV’s Matador debut, gets all the lo-fi zeigeist-grabbing love. Sure, the album was responsible for bringing the Slitbreeze sound (please stop calling it “shitgaze”) to a wider audience, but its follow-up is the best album the band’s recorded to date. Featuring the band at their catchiest (“Half-Day in Hell”), their most abrasive (“I Smell Bubblegum”, “Take the Piss”), and their moodiest (“2/11 Don’t Forget”) all at the same time, Born Again Revisited is also the album that houses “Move to California” and “No Time, No Hope”, their biggest single and best song, respectively. The former adroitly captures the essence of a boring day in 1995, while the latter is a sugar rush that makes a glorious racket during the chorus, clearly indebted to New Zealand noise-pop pioneers The Clean.

The most remarkable thing about the record is how it appropriates the past while retaining their individuality, reminding us that the best lo-fi sounds absolutely timeless. If I were to pick a record (from any record label, not just Matador) that had the distinction of “lost classic” written all over it, Born Again Revisited would be my choice. Refer to this post in 20 years to see if I’m right.

MP3: Times New Viking-“Move to California”

Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life (2008)

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Fucked Up has often been erroneously categorized as a hardcore band. I suppose when your lead singer is a growling, bearded menace who could probably make short work of both of The Bushwackers in a two-versus-one cage match, it’s par for the course. The truth is they’re astute art-punks in dirtier clothes. The Chemistry of Common Life is exceptionally daring for such a heavy record, taking more risks than a good number of records, genre notwithstanding (Flutes! Bongos! Drone interludes!). But when the record’s standout features ethereal harmonies from Vivian Girls and still manages to be one of the album’s heaviest songs, then maybe “hardcore” is a pretty appropriate tag.

MP3: Fucked Up-“No Epiphany”

Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ‘08 (2008)

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Let’s get this out of the way: Jay Reatard was a complete prick to almost everyone. He alienated fans and promoters, he and his backing band parted on acrimonious terms, and he died of cocaine toxicity. But he was a prick who, to confuse shit, made some really incredible punk records. On the strength of his best solo record, the classic Blood Visions, Matador signed Reatard and released a well-executed stream of singles over the course of 2008.

Matador Singles ‘08 captures the songwriting genius of Reatard in quick, aggressive blasts. “Always Wanting More” is warp speed, Wire-influenced pop-punk bolstered by an infectious guitar solo. “No Time“ and “You Were Sleeping“ are tender acoustic ballads. “D.O.A.” opens with stuttering drums that sound like a jammed machine gun and end with organs that prove Times New Viking isn’t the only Matador group with a profound Clean influence.

Sometimes the fact that not all great artists are great human beings clouds our perception of the music. Reatard never has been alleged of doing anything outright repressible ala Terry Richardson, he was just a real asshole. But regardless of his personality, Reatard had long been one of post-millennial punk music’s greatest talents, and Matador Singles ‘08 proves that those talents came more naturally than a great deal of his (more likable) peers.

MP3: Jay Reatard-“Fluorescent Grey”

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)

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Time has been particularly kind to Interpol’s debut record. Upon its release, the crowd was split between the believers who felt the band cleverly updated the dark, moody sounds of noir-ish post-punk, and the naysayers who saw them as little more than Joy Division plagiarists with $400 haircuts. The latter contingent has seemed to shrink a little over the course of the past six years, due in no small part to the level of craft applied to the songs on Turn on the Bright Lights.

Sure, you can focus on Daniel Kessler’s one-note strumming or Paul Banks’ droning, sad robot voice, but you would be missing out on the real key to the success of the record: Interpol’s rhythm section. Drummer Sam Fogarino, always the band’s secret weapon, is machine-like in his precision, able to switch from the tapped kick drum and metronomic cymbal of “Hands Away” to being able to set the pace on “Roland” and drive the chaos that happens there. Carlos D., Interpol’s resident bassist and fashion casualty, bolsters every song on this record with his compositional flair, using his basslines as a counterpoint to the melody rather than lazily-applied low-end. It’s hard to imagine flawless opener “Untitled” without the melodic, full-sounding bassline that Carlos provides.

And when all four of them are on together, like during “NYC”, when all the instruments are pointed skyward and Banks is shouting, “It’s up to me, now/Turn on the bright lights”, you wonder if he’s looking to the sky for the ghosts of underground New York City’s past, or perhaps even Ian Curtis himself. A subtle plea for the big time, Interpol’s first close up is the one we’ll remember the most.

MP3: Interpol-“NYC”

Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)

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A marquee Matador band since 1993, Yo La Tengo’s work has gone in a number of fascinating directions since signing with the label. This, their fourth record for the label, is arguably their most dynamic. Heightened by career-highlight “Cherry Chapstick”, Yo La scrubbed away the dissonance of a Thurston Moore-penned Sonic Youth tune and kicked things into overdrive. Nobody had previously chided the band for their lack of ambition, but And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out packs a world of ideas in its 77-running time: Thomas Pynchon and The Simpsons are both referenced, a song written by a member of KC and the Sunshine band is covered, and drum machines and noise are given equal billing, sometimes on the same track.

And that’s not to say anything about the gorgeous, epic near-18-minute closer “Night Falls on Hoboken”, which manages to be wholly riveting and engaging without even having to raise the sound level above that of a kitchen microwave. Yo La Tengo is a band that has made a slew of incredible albums before and since, but the ambition of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is unmatched by any of them.

MP3: Yo La Tengo-“Cherry Chapstick”

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