Monday, March 30, 2009

Super Saver/Bargain Bin: Uzi. Sleep Asylum (Homestead, 1986/Matador, 1994)

Bargain Bin/Super Saver is a series in which guest writer Oliver Jones reconsiders the work of artists reviled, forgotten, and/or underexposed. In this entry, he discusses Uzi's Sleep Asylum LP, an early effort by Come's post-traumatic blues banshee Thalia Zadek.

“Where does my baby go? / When all the lights come on?”

Uzi’s Sleep Asylum, according to the liner notes, is “one of those records heard of more than heard.” It's a short album, only six songs long, and clocks in at under 22 minutes. I listen to Sleep Asylum mostly when in my car at night. Driving countless miles on an empty highway, I can listen to it end to end for hours at a time.

This is much how I imagine the band Live Skull heard it as they were on tour in 1986. According to the oral history, Live Skull, a distant second to Sonic Youth's preeminence on the New York/No Wave scene, had a cassette of Sleep Asylum
on heavy rotation in their tour van. At a show in Providence, a shy young woman in the audience introduced herself to Mark C, Live Skull’s guitarist and vocalist, and humbly admitted to having been the lead singer and songwriter of a little known and short-lived Boston outfit called Uzi. And that's how Thalia Zedek became the lead singer of Live Skull.

Thalia Zedek has been in more bands than God, which is why it's actually kind of amazing that she remains relatively unknown to the wider indie audience. She came closest to recognition with her mid/late-'90s outfit Come, who put out four albums on Matador. Unlike Come, Uzi sounds, understandably, like the work of younger artists. Uzi wears their influences on their sleeves, which would be irritating if their influences weren’t fairly awesome. One hears large doses of Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Birthday Party. Had the band seen a longer life and wider sales, it would have undoubtedly found classification in the "Punk/Goth/Death Rock" section at Sam Goody.

Emerging from the Boston scene in 1983 and '84, Uzi is also in debt to Beantown's legendary Mission of Burma, who had disbanded just as Uzi was coming up. This debt is most notable in Uzi’s integration of tape loops and tape manipulation into their live instrumentation. While Burma blends these hyper-textual elements seamlessly into their song structures, Uzi’s manipulations tend to sit on the surface, which seems a bit amateurish but works to great effect in songs like "Pale Light," where the sound of dripping water provides a kind of languishing counter-rhythm, or in "Collections," where a reversed Gregorian chant plays against sweeping guitar melodies.

The album begins with a loop of Thalia screaming unintelligibly, deep in the throws of a night terror. This establishes a kind of narrative arc for the album. While not a concept album, Sleep Asylum must be listened to in a particular order. Listening to it on random undoes the magic. Rather than being a collection of short stories, Sleep Asylum is a riveting novella that doesn’t bear dissembling. There’s not a lot of “verse-chorus-bridge-repeat” in Thalia’s songs; rather, each song is a collection of movements, and the spaces between the songs become increasingly irrelevant. At least that’s how it is with this album and her other brooding masterpiece, Eleven: Eleven, recorded with her later band, Come.

Out of this mumble/screamed, fever dream of an intro the band launches into the tense, driven "Criminal Child." Lyrically and vocally, Thalia is reminiscent here of Patti Smith more than any one else. In her raspily androgynous voice, she peels off weird and disturbing lyrics like, “I checked every pulse in a city that never wakes/ Disguised as a stranger, I felt so out of place/ I wrapped her sweater around my face.” Clearly, one needs to have a slight melancholic streak to really dig Thalia; she doesn’t ever lapse into morose pretensions, as she is far more interested in making music that sounds dangerous. However, wounded and dark psychologies are definitely her bread and butter.

As the song climaxes and the garbling of the night terror stops abruptly, a calm, clinical voice asks, “Can you imagine yourself relaxing?" This is, one supposes, the beginning of the hypnotherapeutic phase of the album, as the first dripping of "Pale Light" starts. This is the downswing of the bi-polar mania, the moment of clarity in which she reflects, as Thalia does in many songs, on the cold, lonely Bostonian winter.

In "Gabrielle," the Cure-ish follow-up to "Pale Light," we get the suggestion of what -- or who -- is making Thalia’s winter so lonely. Here we see her lamenting her reverse-midas touch on relationships. In an interesting and unusual vocal melody that’s just a little outside her own prowess, she delivers a deft assessment of a self-aware self-saboteur: “Daylight pins me to my bed/ Do you ever get that feeling? / Make a movement and disturb the air/ And consequences will start repeating.” In "Ha-Ha-Ha,” this self-assessment turns on itself and manifests as self-hatred. It’s the angry and chaotic climax, guitar lines swerving around and into each other like cars in a demolition derby.

The relief from all this angst comes in the fifth and most lengthy track on the album, "Collections." It's a haunting six and half minutes into which Uzi throws everything but the kitchen sink: the aforementioned Gregorian chant, horns, a dizzying collection of melody and counter-melody. This was the original album closer, but when Matador reissued Sleep Asylum in the early '90s, the label appended the LP's final track, “Underneath,” which had been recorded at the same time as the rest of Sleep Asylum. With heavy does of Closer-era Joy Division in its trembly, descending guitar lines and phaser-masked bass line, "Underneath" is a solid addition to the mix and does a seeker of such obscurities a fine service by consolidating all of Uzi's known recordings in one collection.

It’s a shame that six songs stand alone as the sole product of such a promising band, an outfit channeling so many diverse influences at a time when post-punk -- and to a greater extent indie rock -- was still so new and undefined. That the band dissolved because of creative differences is an even greater shame considering that its breadth of sound and scope of ambition are what make Sleep Asylum such a great album. Furthermore, even given the Matador re-issue Sleep Asylum is still a hard album to find, lending credence to the liner notes' assertion that it's an album "more heard of than heard.” -- Oliver Jones

Sleep Asylum by Uzi